Recently I had the opportunity to read about half of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s famous book Nudge. It was more or less what I expected: a broad overview of different observations about human behavior from the young field of behavior economics, followed by a series of arguments for various policies that utilize those behaviors in a constructive way. The biggest surprise of the book — given Cass Sunstein’s reputation as a “non-ideological pragmatist” and his current employer’s reputation as same — was how willing Thaler and Sunstein were to engage with the philosophical arguments for and against their doctrine of libertarian paternalism. Burke was cited, as was Rawls.
As for libertarian paternalism, and nudging itself, I’m basically onboard. I’ve argued before that public policy can’t help but influence social norms, and so policy makers need to think about how to influence them in a productive manner; this book provides a handy conceptual framework in which to do that. It goes without saying that the concept has limited utility (Sunstein’s proposals for how we can nudge conspiracy theorists are kind of disturbing), but it also adds some much-needed texture to notions about what constitutes good policy.