Book Review: ‘Nudge’ by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show

Prominently lauded and recommended on the book cover by Daniel Kahneman – co-author of ‘The Undoing Project,’ along with Amon Tversky – ‘Nudge’ is a practical application of Kahneman and Tversky’s theory and research in behavioral economics, working off the basic belief that 99% of humanity is inherently irrational and easily swayed to making the wrong decision by trivial prompts and details.

To give just one example, Thaler and Sunstein brainstormed ideas for normalizing gay marriage in the first edition of their book, published in 2008. In their ‘Final Edition’ – the one I recently read – they explain that governments around the world, rather than relying on nudges like they recommended, just passed laws declaring gay marriage the law of the land. And they were happy with that.

But Thaler and Sunstein say,

“We do not support a position known as “Presumed Consent,” but we do support freedom of choice.”

By this they seem to mean what Progressives typically do when they describe themselves as being Pro Choice. Freedom of choice for those whose humanity is fully recognized and affirmed as sacrosanct. For those whose full personhood is somewhat in doubt, on the other hand, a different set of rules apply.

They heartily agree people should be allowed to make mistakes, though – just so long as those decisions are not harming others. And the decision-makers need to be adequately informed. But of course the slippery slopes here are found in how broadly “harming others” is defined, where “adequately informed” serves as just another euphemism for nudging – i.e., manipulating people into freely making the choice Thaler and Sunstein want them to make.

Expressing a predictably low opinion of conservatives and conservatism as contrary to progress, Thaler and Sunstein proposed government getting out of marriage entirely in their earlier edition. The civil union strategy was to serve as a kind of end-run around traditionalist and conservative arguments by playing games with the language. Dictionary editors of the world, unite!

They were also pleasantly surprised President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage while in office, in a reversal of course from his initial campaign claims and pledges. That was a nudge in the right direction, of course.

Subsequently, countries that legalized gay marriage in the early 2000’s and 2010’s are listed off in ‘Nudge,’ and each homosexual who came out of the closet prior to those years is regarded by them as a separate and individual ‘nudge’ in the direction of legalizing gay marriage.

So also, in the U.S. specifically, they talk about how in 2013 an openly homosexual bar association was admitted to argue cases at the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time, introducing 30+ lawyers who were homosexuals to Supreme Court Justices. This too served as a nudge, this time targeting SCOTUS and leading to the 2015 decision which that judicial body made in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Meanwhile, from a social and cultural standpoint, presenting normalization of acceptance for homosexuals, and thereafter gay marriage, as an up and coming reality, an inevitable trend, helped to make the same into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That is to say they lied in much the same way the Bolsheviks named themselves after the Russian word for “majority,” even when they weren’t. It was a bluff, but it worked.

They created the false impression, then, much like another Obama administration official, Ben Rhodes. It was Rhodes who bragged publicly about creating an echo chamber of disinformation in the American media regarding the Iran Nuclear Deal. (It didn’t hurt that David Rhodes was both Ben’s brother and president of CBS News from 2011-2019, by the way.)

But the line from the book remarking that “people can even nudge themselves” really struck me. It seemed a kind of after-thought for Thaler and Sunstein. This realization gets creepy when you come to the chapter on organ donation. An exploration of options available to governments to improve the supply and demand of transplantable organs includes the suggestion that a market could be created for them to be bought and sold. And isn’t that what the Chinese Communist Party has been doing?

Discussing the policy in the UK where next of kin needs to be asked permission before harvesting organs on someone who has been declared braindead, and how no surgery is performed if the family can’t be reached, the authors complain that it’s hard to see how lives are saved in this way. Thus their prerogative is consistently – here as elsewhere – placing their high value on health, safety, and saving lives on their terms and timeframe above a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, or human dignity, though they strenuously deny this latter commitment is being sacrificed in the process, I guess because they call themselves ‘Libertarian Paternalists’ or something.

Their prescriptions and framing get downright spooky when they talk about government responses to COVID and Climate Change around the world, in no small part because they take seemingly deserved credit for having helped shape those responses through the influence of their book here.

Where Climate Change is concerned, most people around the world are too busy concentrating on the present, as Thaler and Sunstein see it. Paying our bills, raising our families, advancing our careers – the fact that there’s no villain to get us all to focus up makes it more of a challenge to mobilize our response. So nudges are needed to get us consumers to utilize less greenhouse gases. But low-cost nudges are insufficient, according to the authors. Mandates and prohibitions have been, are, and will be necessary.

Climate Change is to their way of thinking a “global choice architecture problem.” And the vast majority of people being regarded as humans as opposed to “Econs,” our individual choices made regarding Climate Change are framed as irrational and problematic. Put that way, it sounds like they found the solution to the problem of finding a villain. The villain is 99% of us.

But of course they are the heroes. And they talk about forming an international Climate Club – comparable to the Paris Climate Accord, and possibly in part the inspiration for it. In this club, each member nation would be given permission to “pollute” a certain amount – i.e., the “Cap” in “Cap and Trade.” But what is being described is Globalized Central Planning – a planned economy on a worldwide scale. That’s Marxism, folks.

Thaler and Sunstein can say nations will be given permission to pollute all they like. What they really mean is that nations will be given permission to produce. They will be told how much and of what compared with what the rest of the world is putting out. And again, the spin and manipulation and framing can be found here in nearly every detail, turn of phrase, and word choice.

So they say the world is not yet ready for zero transportation or electricity right away, or even next year. But that may be necessary at some point – for the greater good. And when you really stop to think about what they’re saying, it sounds increasingly plausible that COVID lockdowns and the global economy being shut down was a kind of trial run for the response to Climate Change these cats favor. Nothing like a global pandemic to nudge us all into readiness for having no fuel or electricity.

‘The Prince,’ ‘Propaganda,’ ‘Rules for Radicals’ – in sum, Thaler and Sunstein’s work feels like a dressed-up and modernized version of these and other similar books I’ve read which Leftists, especially in the U.S., are fond of using for strategic source material. It would seem in reading ‘Nudge’ that Progressive realpolitik decided to put on a smiley face just like Goldberg’s ‘Liberal Fascism’ foretold.

Yet at the risk of stating the obvious, the cure for what ails American society and the world is not more nudges. The solution is for the likes of Thaler and Sunstein to stop manipulating the Nudged Enough Already – i.e., the 99% of us they regard as mere mortals in contrast to their Econ selves.

Come to think of it, maybe we need a new political movement. We’ll call it the NEA Party. It’ll be like the TEA Party, but countering nudges instead of taxes and regulations. Those who join soonest and fight hardest we will call “the knights who say NEA.” What say you?

This episode is sponsored by

· Anchor: The easiest way to make a podcast.

Send in a voice message:

Support this podcast:


Leave a Reply