When should governments intervene?by Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington / December 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
The Ethics of Influence by Cass R Sunstein (Cambridge University Press, £18.99)
Insights into the behavioural foibles that stop us making good decisions are increasingly being applied in government policy. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler started it all with the 2008 publication of Nudge—the manifesto for “libertarian paternalism” that led David Cameron to create the Behavioural Insights Team.
Sunstein’s new book is an integrated collection of essays on the ethics of government intervention. His ever-reasonable voice reiterates that one can’t object to “nudging” in theory since nudges are everywhere. Rather, when deciding what and whether governments should nudge, one should assess the implications for welfare, autonomy, dignity and self-government. This is a helpful setting of parameters, though one that falls short of offering the urgently-needed framework to guide government officials.
It’s easy to see how instigating default voter registration is benign, while assuming default support for a political incumbent is malign. What is needed is an ethically-grounded pathway through the many options in between.
Ultimately the book fails to deliver by limiting its audience to the same set of American libertarians Sunstein has faced from the start. Whereas nudging under Barack Obama is mistrusted as an attempt to expand government, nudging under Cameron was perceived as an attempt to replace government responsibility with self-reliant citizens. The unspoken assumption throughout is that individual decision-making is the product of flawed individual minds, as opposed to being affected by socio-economic position and societal forces—a possibility missed by this otherwise helpful treatise.