Nudge theorists say laziness and poor lifestyle choices make us human
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News political reporter
Is this the answer to the age-old debate about how much the state should do to control people's lives?
In recent weeks the political classes have been avidly discussing the latest political theory to emanate from the United States.
A book called Nudge, by academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, suggests that bad choices and laziness are a large part of what makes us human.
Yet, they argue, politicians appeal too much - too logically - to voters' self-interest, urging them to save money, turn down the heating or eat more healthily.
The behaviour of those around us is a powerful motivator, it is argued
Thaler and Sunstein say that, contrary to classic economic models, people are forever making wrong decisions which damage themselves, such as binge-drinking or failing to set up pensions.
They want the "right" choices to be made "easier". This could mean automatically enrolling employees in savings schemes - giving them the choice of opting out, rather than asking them actively to join in the first place.
Or perhaps school canteens could place healthy food at the front of the counter to "nudge kids towards good diets".
Senior Tories and some members of the government have shown an interest in the theory.
But Hazel Blears, communities secretary and former Labour Party chairman, told the BBC: "Every now and then a book pops up which everyone talks about for a while in the Westminster bubble: Freakonomics, The Wisdom of Crowds, The Tipping Point. Nudge is the latest fad.
"Each of these books may help us understand an issue or challenge us to think a little differently. But the harsh reality is that none can provide a blueprint for a better world. Politics is never that easy."
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Thaler and Sunstein have worked closely with advisers to Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for the US presidency and, in the UK, shadow chancellor George Osborne has embraced the nudge agenda.
Among other ideas, Mr Osborne is proposing that energy bills should contain details of what "average" households spend.
This, the argument goes, will be more effective at cutting electricity and gas use among profligate families than simply cajoling them to stop being wasteful.
Mr Osborne also wants people signing up for in-store credit cards to get a seven-day "cooling-off" period to reflect on whether they really want more debt, sometimes at high interest rates.
He has suggested councils should pay people who recycle lots of waste up to £360 a year, possibly in restaurant vouchers.
In a speech to the Green Alliance think-tank, he said: "The government's approach is an old-fashioned one: use the threat of fines and punitive taxation to force people to recycle. We've all seen how unpopular this heavy-handed approach has been with the public. Instead of using sticks we can use carrots."
Leading Tories are captivated by the idea that a gentle nudge or - in the words of Thaler and Sunstein, a bit of "libertarian paternalism" - can change the world.
The Conservatives, traditionally wary of a powerful state, can still improve society, but without interfering too much.
'Party of ideas'
What is more, individuals still have a choice. But politicians become, like lawyers or family doctors, so-called "choice architects", guiding people towards doing the right thing.
In an article for the Guardian, Mr Osborne wrote: "Our work with the world's leading behavioural economists and social psychologists is yet more proof that the Conservative Party is now the party of ideas in British politics."
But Ms Blears said: "What's needed is a government giving people the platform. I'm not surprised that the Tories have leapt on Nudge as the answer to their prayers. They are a brand in search of a product.
"Somehow they have to square the circle of their public spending promises with their tax cuts. They have to look modern and progressive in order to win votes.
"So the idea that somehow a 'choice architecture' can be built which makes us all in better citizens may appeal to David Cameron, because it all sounds so easy."
Ms Blears admitted, though, that Nudge "does contain some useful insights", agreeing that "governments can set a framework in which people will want to behave decently".
Other critics say that all Nudge means is that the state is still doing its work, just less honestly than before.
Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat MP in charge of writing his party's next general election manifesto, said: "The danger of the way Nudge is being talked about in political circles, particularly in Conservative circles, is that it's more about a stealthy way of doing politics than being straight with people.
"Rather than being explicit about what will happen, it seems to want to lead people to 'where we want them to go'. I think that's illiberal and the kind of lack of transparency that turns people off politics."
The Green Alliance's senior policy adviser, Tracy Carty, is more equivocal.
She said: "I think the nudge approach is trying to create default behaviour that is favourable to the environment.
"People's current default behaviour is to do things that damage the environment, so that would be a welcome change. But such is the size of the environmental problem that we also need an active state. Nudge can help, but it needs to be in addition to huge efforts by government."
Whether Nudge can save the world - and make us better people - remains to be seen. The debate goes on.