At the heart of the debate about nudge policy is a debate about the freedom to choose. Some would argue that the freedom to act according to one’s own wishes without any external coercion is essential. The state, on the other hand, would do best to point out that by accepting to live in our current liberal state we already accept that the state can (and even should) coerce us for our own good. Instead, writes Paula Zoido-Oses, the real issue with nudges is that they pose a threat to the only principle that makes us feel at ease with our acceptance of the state as a coercive power: the right to dissent
The government’s use of the Behavioural Insights Team (better known as the Nudge Unit) has sparked a debate about freedom on why we value it. Some people consider nudge policies unethical because, at least to an extent, they serve to ‘brainwash’ their intended target. Because we cannot control our exposure to nudges nor the way in which they affect us, it has been argued that they curtail our basic freedom of choice. Nudge detractors oppose them even if they agree with the policies they are trying to implement. The problem with nudges is thus not one of ends, but of means.
Supporters of nudge policies claim that because nudges preserve individual’s freedom of choice, their freedom remains untouched. However what both nudge detractors and defenders do not seem to realise is that as members of liberal democratic societies we already agreed – and long ago – to be coerced for our own good by the state. Freedom of choice per se is not what matters. The problem lies somewhere else, and it is only when critics of nudges admit this that they can start to build a proper case against this sort of policies.
On a basic level, the current debate regarding nudges can be seen as boiling down to a confrontation between two views of liberty: liberty as intrinsically valuable versus liberty as instrumentally valuable. These two understandings of freedom can also be paralleled to the dichotomy made famous by Isaiah Berlin of negative versus positive liberty. If we understand liberty as negative liberty or intrinsically valuable – that is to say, what matters is the freedom to act according to one’s own wishes without any external coercion, because choosing freely is always choosing well – nudge policies are unethical, even if the final choice is ours. This objection makes sense from a logical point of view: if we were just as free to choose after being affected by a nudge as we were before, then there would not be a point to the nudge at all. If nudges are effective then surely they must affect us in some way. The question, then, is not whether the nudge affects our liberty in its more basic sense. The question is whether this tampering with our liberty is acceptable or not, and why.
In order to effectively argue in favour of nudge policies, the state must openly recognise its commitment to positive liberty and its view of freedom as instrumentally valuable. If we ever speak of ‘free’ or ‘liberal’ states is not because they do not coerce our freedom, but because we allow them to do so insofar as they do it just to the extent we consider necessary for the maximization of other goods – including freedom at times – that we consider valuable. For example, we accept the threat of jail for failing to school children or for tax evasion because we consider the benefits of education and wealth redistribution as goods more valuable than the good of being able to choose whether or not to have those things. In other words, freedom is not valuable for its own sake but only insofar as it is a means of achieving other things we regard as desirable or beneficial.
The state could easily use that argument – that by accepting to live in our current liberal state we already accept that the state can (and even should) coerce us for our own good – to justify the use of nudges. If we are willing to support certain coercive state policies such as the ones already mentioned because we agree in that they increase our welfare and even our freedom, rejecting nudges because we think that it is better to choose badly than not to choose at all is completely inconsistent. If nudges are cheaper, more efficient and gentler than classic straightforward means of state coercion, why should we not have them?
The problem with nudges lies somewhere else other than in the restriction of freedom they represent. Nudge policies seem problematic not because we oppose the role of the state as a coercive power or because we reject the notion of freedom as instrumentally valuable. The problem with nudges is that they pose a threat to the only principle that makes us feel at ease with our acceptance of the state as a coercive power: the right to dissent. The reason we want to have a choice between sending our children to school or facing jail is not because we believe that going to jail and having uneducated children is always a better choice if freely chosen. The reason we want to have that choice is because we can imagine a state in which going to jail can be the better alternative to a policy we disagree with – and not only insofar as it represents an exercise of our free will.
In other words, we can imagine that the state’s understanding of the good life may be very different from ours at some point, and having a right to dissent allows us not only to choose well despite the efforts of the state, but also to let the state know of our disagreement. The right to dissent is a safety net for citizens, just as essential for the proper functioning of democratic liberal states as the acceptance of the rule of law is. The problem with nudge policies is not that they threaten our freedom to choose to act badly; the problem is that they threaten our freedom to choose to act well.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
Paula Zoido-Oses is a PhD candidate in the European Institute in the London School of Economics. She is writing a thesis that explores Isaiah Berlin’s thought. She is particularly interested in political and moral philosophy, liberalism and value pluralism, continental philosophy and philosophy of history.