on 2 November 2011
Yes, that's right, Big Brother is nudging you. But nicely, oh so nicely. Which makes it alright then, doesn't it?
Actually no, no it doesn't. After reading this book, I came away with the same sense of horror that Orwell's 1984 induced, forever shaping my political instincts. But it might be better to compare Nudge with another dystopian tract, Huxley's Brave New World, where the populous aren't so much pushed as pulled into compliance. For Nudge is a book about soft power i.e. indirect, non-coercive influence as opposed to brute force or diktat. And I object to it at almost every level.
I object to the absurd self-classification of the authors' position as 'patriarchal libertarianism'. Let's also talk about square circles or free-market socialism, shall we. This species of overt muddled thinking is in the same remedial class as Blair's bitter 'Third Way' and all its hollow kind. Libertarianism envisions a government that leaves people free to make bad decisions and then take whatever hue of consequences ensues. Paternalism means government acting in parentis loco under the fantastic delusion that a cabal of politicians knows what is best for me. Redefining both - which is that this book does - is exactly an example of soft power in action.
The authors make a distinction between Econs and Humans. Econs are ideal, rational decision-makers; humans are the unwashed mass of humanity as is - irrational, riddled with cognitive biases, automatons of the marketing puppet-masters (read: 'choice architects'). The book argues (correctly) that no choice is neutral - whoever is presenting you with the choice has some game to play. The book's solution is that since people are mere Humans rather than Econs, those in power should help or 'nudge' them toward making the right choices. How? By presenting the choice in such a way that the Human brain will 'freely' choose what Big Brother considers best for them.
My solution would be somewhat different. Instead of assuming the worst, aim for the best. TEACH PEOPLE TO BE ECONS! Use a mixture of critical thinking and mindfulness techniques (the authors use the phrase 'mindless' or equivalent several times e.g. 38, 44, 46-8) to equip citizens in rational, free decision-making, beyond the power of any propagandist, whether state or market originated.
Throughout the book two names kept popping into my head, one of an individual thinker and the other a system of thought. Nietzsche was one of the first to criticise 'herd morality'; his tone is enough to shame his readers into some semblance of independent thought. Nudge uses the word 'herd' fairly frequently; it forms part of the title for chapter three, in which we find the following gem.
"Econs are pretty unsociable creatures. They communicate with others if they can gain something from the encounter, they care about their reputations, and they will learn from others if actual information can be obtained, but Econs are not followers of fashion...(In contrast to this), Humans are not exactly lemmings, but they are easily influenced by the statement and deeds of others." (57)
I suspect that the authors believe they are dealing with people as they really are, not as we might want them to be. They portray Econs as either some mythical supra-rational species, or vaguely sinister socio-phobs, as here. I profoundly disagree. To be an Econ is to be an individuated, reflective human being, a responsible citizen, a rational thinker. We do exist, and we will not be nudged.
The second name is neuro-linguistic programming, an advanced self-help technology beloved of coaches and sales people. The first time I learned of techniques like 'anchoring' (25) and 'framing' (39) were in this context. But it is unsurprising to find them here. Nudge is indeed an exercise in 'neuroeconomics' (45). Practitioners of NLP use these techniques for interpersonal persuasion, whether in public speaking, negotiation or selling. Here, Nudgers are merely applying these manipulative arts to society-at-large rather than an individual victim.
Did you know that the UK government has an unelected Behavioural Insights Team dedicated to using these Nudge techniques to influence our decision-making in line with government policy? What stops me from having nightmares about this is that I know it exists. Most - the herd - do not. This herd would fight any form of hard power or overt government repression (at least, I hope so). But a cunning use of words and options is more difficult to detect and defend oneself against. It's easier to watch The X Factor instead.
My last word on this comes from the mouth of one of the characters in the excellent film Josey Wales. "Don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining." Well, don't engineer all my decisions and tell me it's liberty! Big Brother isn't a fascist dictator, he's professor of behavioural science. Soma, anyone?
I give the authors one star for satisfactory notes, bibliography and index (which they didn't compile), and another for having the effrontery to publish such a textbook for tender tyranny in the first place.