Cumbria Times
A Voice of the Free Press
1:00 AM 27th March 2024

Government's 'Nudge' Tactics Undermine Personal Choice, Argues New IEA Book


Image by Alexa from Pixabay
Image by Alexa from Pixabay
Britain's increasingly zealous ‘nanny state' policies are manipulating citizens' personal decisions under the guise of 'nudging' them towards healthier choices, according to a new book from the free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

New Paternalism Meets Older Wisdom argues that modern interventionist tactics, such as cigarette packet warnings, auto-enrolment into workplace pensions, and other 'nudges' often cross the line by imposing politicians' lifestyle preferences on the public while ignoring people's rights to make their own free choices.

“Whereas classical paternalism uses coercion to override agents’ preferences for the sake of the agents’ own good, the new paternalism proposes agents do what the agents themselves want to do,” writes author Erik Matson, a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center.

New paternalistic policies change how choices are presented, encouraging individuals to make better decisions based on their real preferences. But in reality, making individuals better off as ‘judged by their own standards’ is extremely difficult, if not impossible, and can lead to manipulative policies.

Matson warns that policymakers “are not simply helping individuals do what the individuals themselves want, for that is too difficult; they are simply attempting to make individuals do something that they (the regulators) believe will improve their lives, irrespective of the individuals’ own consent.”

Matson harnesses the work of ‘the Father of Economics’ Adam Smith to illustrate that people’s preferences are not a static mathematical equation but rather an ever-evolving process of trial, error, and change. He asks, “How can someone nudge us into a course of action that will make us better off by our own standards if we ourselves are unsure what those standards are?”

Matson emphasises the complexity of human choice by applying the ideas of the influential philosopher David Hume. Hume’s key insight was that choices are not always made with a predetermined preference in mind. “When going to a restaurant, we sometimes have a well-formed sense of what we’d like but other times we make in-time decisions when the server is at the table”, Matson illustrates.

New Paternalism Meets Older Wisdom calls into question the modern nanny state’s claim to be enabling individuals to make the choices they want to make. It demonstrates that new paternalism still seeks to restrict choices for individuals and impose the preferences of politicians.

Erik Matson, author and Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center, said:

“The ideas of two giants in the history of economic thought—Adam Smith and David Hume—highlight practical and ethical challenges involved in paternalistic efforts to help people become better off ‘by their own standards’.

“Rationality is a much wider concept than is sometimes assumed by behavioural scientists, and people’s decisions may well be in their best interests as they understand them, even if they do not appeal to observers. Policymakers who are committed to the notion that all citizens are equals should prioritise persuasion over paternalistic interventions.”