The Soft Totalitarianism of Nudging

dbIn his op-ed column “The Nudge Debate” in last Thursday’s New York Times, David Brooks promotes a concept that is gathering momentum among the leftist elites in, and connected to, the White House: “nudging,” a seemingly innocuous form of social engineering designed to steer us lazy, infantile Americans subtly toward making the “correct” choices in our personal and social lives. He calls it “social paternalism”; think of it as a kinder, gentler totalitarianism.

Nudging first appeared on the scene in 2009 with a book by Richard Thaler and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein called Nudge, on “how government and other organizations could induce people to avoid common errors.” As Brooks explains it, those errors result from the fact that “people are pretty bad at sacrificing short-term pleasure for long-term benefit. We’re bad at calculating risk. We’re mentally lazy.” We make bad decisions unless “we’re forced to put in a little more mental effort.” In other words, we all have “a little Homer Simpson in us,” says Sunstein, and once people realize that, “then there’s a lot that can be done to manipulate them” – to nudge them.

Sunstein was an official advisor to President Obama and happens to be the husband of the influential Samantha Power, who is off to the United Nations now as our new ambassador there, where she will carry out her (and her boss’) subversive agenda to surrender American sovereignty. Sunstein, who once wrote that “there is no liberty without dependency,” is the author of another book which argues that citizens’ rights exist only to the extent that they are granted by the government. Last year, he gave a lecture at Yale on the topic of nudging and has a book forthcoming in 2014 called – with apparent seriousness – Nanny Statecraft.

“Most of us,” David Brooks condescends, “behave somewhat decently because we are surrounded by social norms and judgments that make it simpler for us to be good.” In other words, Americans generally do the right thing only because “social norms” compel our lazy, selfish, short-sighted asses to do so. “To some gentle extent, government policy should embody those norms, a preference for saving over consumption, a preference for fitness over obesity, a preference for seat belts and motorcycle helmets even though some people think it’s cooler not to wear them.”

Brooks looks to saviors he calls “public spirited people” to design ways to rescue us from our incompetence and sloth. These betters of ours are designing “choice architectures” that guide us, like cattle, in the direction of what the left deems to be the proper moral and societal choices. To apply this theory to policy-making, the public spirited people in the Obama administration recently announced the creation of a “Behavioral Insights Team.”

The idea, Brooks continued, is that “[g]overnment doesn’t tell you what to do, but it gently biases the context so that you find it easier to do things you think are in your own self-interest.” Translation: government doesn’t tell you what to do because the citizenry would resist such a heavy-handed measure; instead, it simply steers you where it wants you to go, on the assumption that you’re too stupid to realize you’re being manipulated, and too lazy to care.

Brooks then lists examples that include: the government designing forms “where the default option is to donate organs or save more for retirement”; telling air-conditioner makers “to build in a little red light to announce when the filter needs changing… since people are too lazy to change the filters promptly otherwise”; or, apparently referring approvingly to totalitarian New York Mayor Bloomberg’s failed anti-Big Gulp campaign, “government could make it harder for you to buy big, sugary sodas.”

In the one paragraph in his piece that will resonate with everyone who isn’t a utopian academic, Brooks then plays devil’s advocate. “Do we want government stepping in to protect us from our own mistakes?… This kind of soft paternalism will inevitably slide into a hard paternalism, with government elites manipulating us into doing the sorts of things they want us to do.” (Of course, that is precisely what nudging is.) And Brooks acknowledges that policy makers are human too, and could “design imperfect interventions even if they mean well.” [Emphasis added]

And there you have it: for all the well-meaning intentions of the left to perfect human nature and design an earthly paradise, they live in denial that their supposedly benign experiments constrain freedom and end in totalitarianism.

Brooks judges that “the anti-paternalists win the debate in theory but the libertarian paternalists win it empirically.” Yes, he says, “it is possible that gentle nudges will turn into intrusive diktats and the nanny state will drain individual responsibility.” But in reality,

it is hard to feel that my decision-making powers have been weakened because when I got my driver’s license enrolling in organ donation was the default option. It’s hard to feel that a cafeteria is insulting my liberty if it puts the healthy fruit in a prominent place and the unhealthy junk food in some faraway corner. It’s hard to feel manipulated if I sign up for a program in which I can make commitments today that automatically increase my charitable giving next year.

Brooks is right that it is hard to feel in such nearly subliminal instances that your liberty and personal responsibility are being diminished, much less denied, and that is precisely why nudging can be so subversively successful among those Americans who aren’t sharply conscious of government overreach.

“These days,” Brooks concludes, “we have more to fear from a tattered social fabric than from a suffocatingly tight one. Some modest paternalism might be just what we need.” Actually, what Americans need is less condescension and suffocating control from arrogant nanny-state elitists like Obama, Sunstein, and Brooks, and more freedom to exercise our individual rights and personal choices.

Mark Tapson, a Hollywood-based writer and screenwriter, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He focuses on the politics of popular culture.

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  • Gary Dickson

    I suggest we slowly “nudge” Mr. Obama out of office and into the collectivist China where he’d be more comfortable and more accepted.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      I honestly think he’d be happiest as president of Indonesia, after arranging a permanent “colonial reparations and compensation plan” to make up for all those things we stole. While waiting for the caliphate to rise…

      • ziggy zoggy

        Indonesians like him. They think he’s “intelligent” and “honest.” (???!!!) And the islamopithocines there think he is one of them. While America’s economy is dying, Indonesia’s is stronger than ever. If anybody could kill it, Obama is the one.

        • defcon 4

          I had read somewhere that a statue of the zero was removed in Indonesia.

    • nomoretraitors

      We had the opportunity to do that last Nov. Unfortuantely we didn’t take it

      • defcon 4

        Personally, I don’t believe the 0 was re-elected at all. I think the election was a farce and the outcome pre-determined. Like Stalin was purported to have said: “I don’t care who you vote for, as long as I get to count the votes.”

  • camp7

    We don’t need nannies, we need a free-thinking leader. Brooks is a sheep in sheep clothing. Doesn’t even qualify as a genuine moderate. He’s a timid neo-statist with no true grit and plays both sides of the political fence with ambiguous ideology. Transparent and woefully infamous. Grow some brass, Dave.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      He’s simply not the most radical guy to occupy a chair on PBS. He’s a leftist that shows empathy for some conservative positions before he attacks them. Big deal.

  • objectivefactsmatter

    “And Brooks acknowledges that policy makers are human too, and could “design imperfect interventions even if they mean well.” [Emphasis added]”

    Gosh, really? I thought the idea had such promise. We could just ask 0’Bama what to do…

  • Elliott Hirsh

    We are no better off than if we lived in an ant farm.

    • theAcefromSpace

      At least all of the ants have a job!

  • A Z

    ” “we have more to fear from a tattered social fabric than from a suffocatingly tight one”

    Somehow all these caring concerned lefties seem to have missed military service among other things. They missed all the bottom rungs and went straight tithe top organizing and telling everyone what to do.

    To call these guys hypocrites is to understate things. The left has advocated libertarianism gone wild and now all the sudden they are concerned for the health and well being of their fellow citizens. What a crack of scat!

    Let us call it what it is. It is a justification by the left to govern and make themselves feel good while doing so.

    Give e Dr Gupta form CNN any day of the week. Some of his advice is so simple that I already know it, but repetition does not hurt. But other info he gives is very good. I am happy that there is a doctor (an expert) that I trust and we are not talking billable hours. Nor is it the government taking from me and the giving a fraction back and pretending that they are doing me a favor. give me Dr Gupta any day of the week and forget the Bloombergs of the world.

    Bloomberg is not nudging. He is trying to body slam people into what he consider healthy lifestyles. And this from a man who is typical of the Democrat party. They want unlimited drugs and free love (gotta have that birth control paid for by the tax payer) . After all that , they then want to talk about healthy living and what is good for us.

    People want what is good for them. They want healthy lifestyles. They just get there a lot slower then the oh so caring, busybody bureaucrats and pols. High tax rates and psychological stress, retard people from living healthy. Gee I wonder who is doing all the taxing?


    Fine and timely article by Tapson. If Brooks had less elitism and more substantial learning, he might have recognized “nudging” as the soft tyranny described by
    DeToqueville in which the citizens are reduced to timid and industrious sheep of whom government is the shepard; if he could be bothered to look closely at Western Europe he would see “soft” tyranny gradually becoming hard tyranny.

  • DogmaelJones1

    Here is an essay that easily complements Mr. Tapson’s, “Nudging Us to Serfdom,” the title a free adaptation of Friedrich von Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom.”

  • tagalog

    Vanguardism rears its ugly head once again. The Third International continues its influence into the second century.

    The great masses of people can’t be counted on to act in their own best interests, their judgment being clouded by delusionary self-interest, and must therefore be led by the vanguard of those who see the greater good more clearly. After all, “Moscow never makes mistakes.”

  • CurmudgyOne

    Ten years down the road, we will all have been “nudged” off a cliff into a pit of societal destruction. Our society will resemble more than any other that of the fallen USSR. We can’t say we haven’t been warned. We can say we haven’t done much to stop it. Welcome to the USSA.

  • cxt

    Seemingly many “elites” need a big heaping bowl of “who-the-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are?”
    Presumably the “elites” would be just as vulnerable to errors in logic as anybody else. Groupthink, fallacious thinking, wish fulfillment and plain old mistakes are not a function of class–as Brooks suggests we might well be “mentally lazy” but it’s telling that he seems to exempt HIMSELF from that concern.
    Presumably Sunstein feels the same–“we” the herd might be “mentally lazy” and prone to errors in thinking—but he and other “elites” do not share “our” human weaknesses–“they” are about that. ;)
    And such presumptions are the most serious mental error/s of all. And precisely why this “nudging is such as a pernicious concept.

    • Gary Dickson

      And all this time we were thinking that the caste system doesn’t exist in the U.S.

      The “elites” and their utopias started in earnest in the mid-1800s and they haven’t let up since then in an attempt to “purify” society:

      1. Darwinism
      2. Marxism
      3. Eugenism
      4. Socialism (international and national)
      5. Communism
      6. Evolutionism
      7. Scientism
      8. Environmentalism
      9. Governmentalism
      10. Anthropomorphic Global Warmism

      All variations of the same idea, i.e., “Don’t worry your pretty little head, we’ll take care of you – one way or another.”

      All fail for precisely the same reason, i.e., their elites fail to acknowledge their own human frailties and have no desire to do so.

      (Now I know why the Theory of Evolution is so attractive to academia.)

      • Seek

        Preposterous. Evolutionary theory is one of the best checks we have against the utopian impulse. It implies that so long as man is bound by his heredity, he can’t simply declare himself master of his own fate. Darwin himself might not have been a conservative, but his findings have presented vast opportunities for conservative commentary, from Charles Murray to Michael Crichton.
        One shudders to think what other “isms” you have in mind that supposedly constitute tools of social control?

        • Gary Dickson


          • Seek

            What, me worry?

        • theAcefromSpace

          ” Darwin himself might not have been a conservative…” A Conservative! Charles Darwin was one of the first Scientific Racists. Others like Galton and Sanger were his eager disciples.

          Are you familiar with this Darwin quote? “At some future period, not very distant as measured in centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time, the anthropomorphous apes will… will no doubt be exterminated. The break will the be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro of Australian and the gorilla.” From the Descent of Man. He ranks the Caucasian at the top and down at the bottom “the negro and Australian.” Conservative my rump.

  • Demetrius Minneapolis

    I learned about societal coercion in a second year political science course and although I was aware at the time (90’s) that governments employed it, I remember being surprised about media employing it as well. Coming out of high school I was oblivious to such things.

    Now we have television news and print media unabashedly showing their bias toward leftist philosophy, but it also is targeting children with toys, movies, cartoons and magazines. I guess they realize that their hope is in children who haven’t paid a dime in income tax, property tax etc were perfect future lib-bots. Them and illiterate immigrants.

    • Gary Dickson

      Well said, Demetrius.

      I see “societal coercion” as another way of saying “imposing morals on a society”, those “morals” being defined by elitists who refuse to acknowledge their own frailties.

  • Chris Shugart

    It’s an absurd concept that only a progressive could embrace: Citizens make bad choices; governments make good ones. So goes the Left’s continuing efforts to turn America into their own image: an upside-down Bizarro world based on progressive ideas that have never worked.

  • Hank Rearden

    err…Mr. Brooks, have you asked yourself why every major government in the U.S. is essentially insolvent? If federal obligations were accounted for on an accrual basis, they would run over $100 trillion. And these guys are going to nudge us to do the right thing?

  • glpage

    I have a few pet peeves and one is those overweening individuals who have absolutely no knowledge of my life and yet seem to think they know what is best for me. This may be a bit inflammatory and certainly is politically incorrect, but sometimes I feel it ought to be open season on those idiots.

    • Gary Dickson

      I highly commend people like you. I see your comment as saying that you wish to take responsibility for your own life, something that is sadly lacking in many people’s thinking.

      When people are bribed into believing that a government will take care of them – with their assuming that the government knows what is best for them – they forget that the price they pay in lost personal freedom is enormous and sometimes even fatal.

  • Grouchy old man

    I fail to see where this is such a revelation.
    The tax code has been used this way since FDR. It is good to own a home so we have the mortgage deduction. Then we have the charitable deduction, the energy efficiency deduction, the education tuition credit and so on. Where have y’all been these last 75 years?
    You’ve been nudged ever since you paid your first income tax, using your Social Security number. Oh, and of course we all pay SSI because it is good to have insurance and to set aside some pittance for retirement.
    We’re already there so what to do?
    Well, make sure the nudges are in the direction that make sense. And we do that how?
    By running electable candidates even if they are not rock solid conservatives – because the solid conservatives can’t get elected in most places-that’s why.
    Forget the battle, let’s win the war!

    • Seek

      Federal income tax withholding, instituted in 1943, is a good early example of a “nudge.” A young economist, Milton Friedman, by the way, had more than a little to do with that wartime measure still with us. Or I suppose he, too, was a collectivist in sheep’s clothing.

    • IntellectGetOne

      You are missing the defining characteristic change here.

      The examples you give are PROACTIVE choices a taxpayer MUST make.

      This new form of totalitarianism is a PASSIVE choice a taxpayer will never make. It will be made FOR him/her unless they take action.

    • Fritz

      Solid conservatives can’t get elected eh? You’ve been listening to too much of the inside the Beltway crowd. What good does it do to elect a Republican branded clone of a Democrat anyhow? All that they do is stab you in the back when things matter. I can name two right now off the top of my head, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, traveling to Egypt to lick the boots of the Muslim Brotherhood on behalf of Obama. Both are also from red states so nobody can claim that a solid conservative couldn’t get elected from those. There are three recent examples of where the “Moderate” Republican candidate strategy fell on it’s face, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, all “Blue” Republicans who handily lost not only in blue states but pissed off the larger conservative base

      Who cares about getting candidates elected in Blue states anyhow? Most Blue states are headed towards bankruptcy and are loosing their productive people to red states. Blue states are going to vote for a fake Democrat when they can continue electing a real one.

  • Wade Englund

    I hope Mark doesn’t mind, but I included some of his comments in my blog on “Gov: Wrong Tool for the Right Job–Cold Nanny”:

  • nimbii

    As a product of the 60’s, and a lack-luster student, I majored in psychology and sociology in secondary education.
    I did not fully understand the driving “truths” behind the “science” of either discipline because I did not meet the basic requirement as a socialist or a communist. I also did not realize that this affected my ability to rise as an insightful student regardless of my sloth, because I was blind or ignorant of the overriding objectives of social control that are requisites of socialism and communism. This limited my undergraduate experience to a dalliance into the social sciences.
    But, after 40+ years in the real world, I see what these sinister and misanthropic dweebs are saying because looking back on it from here, I think I knew some of their ilk. As post-adolescents they did not get the cheer leader / quarterback nor the great job nor the great lifestyle. This drove them to figure out how to make everybody else pay for this injustice. Sunsteen is simply a sadist as is his wife. They were lesser adolescent lights and now it’s time for the lesser persons who did not revere them as they feel they should have been to put the Sunsteen bit in their mouths.
    Without George Soros and others to finance these persons, they would still be dusty professors in some obscure corner of academe.

  • IntellectGetOne

    If we let the government do it, what about private enterprise?

    “You get this $89/month subscription added to your $5.00 ghia pet order automatically, UNLESS you choose to opt-out of it.”

    Hmmmmm, I think that would be pretty much exactly the nudge that might wake up these liberal democrats.

  • Michael

    Sure, Mr. Brooks. Lets start with you. We’ll “nudge” you into realizing the facts of life. We’ll do it like this..
    We’ll start by moving you from your current home to Detroit and give
    you a home thats 50% larger. See, we need to revitalize Detroit.
    Oh, we forgot to tell you its in the gang zone where there are
    shootings so don’t forget your kevlar vest. Don’t like Detroit? Ok,
    then, we’ll send you to south Chicago!
    Once you get used to your new home, we’ll move you next to Egypt. See,
    we need for the Egyptians to have a good impression of the USA and
    you’re perfect for it! Oh, forgot to tell you its close to the Gaza
    strip. Trust you don’t mind.
    Next, we’ll move you to Gaza itself. We need Americans to understand
    the dire situation faced by the Palestinians in Gaza. Oh, you fear for
    your family’s safety? No problem. We’ll have some Al Aqsa martyrs’s
    brigade guards outside so the Israelis dare not attack you!
    Next, we’ll move you to Abbotabad or Islamabad or Peshawar right next
    to the Afghani border. The Pakistanis need to see some positive
    American role models.
    Now comes the really fun part since you understand the Islamic culture
    so well. We’re going to make you a peace representative to Tehran!
    You’ll live close to the central mosque.

    like all that nudging, Mr. Brooks? We can come up with more in other
    aspects of your life too like what you eat, who you associate with,
    where you pray, where you work, how your wife dresses, where you kids to
    go school etc. Enjoy your new life!

  • Marvin E. Fox

    If the Nudger in Chief used used behavioral science nudges, accompanied by NSA type data farming to win the 2014 election, as it was reported he may have done, would that be violation of the 1st Amendment Right of the unasked voters who were the victims. It could have been a violation of the Right to Privacy. It might have been a violation of a voter’s 9th amendment Right to his own determination for his vote.
    Since behavioral science is generally considered to be a procedure used on persons with mental deficiencies, the practice of using it to swing voters to a candidate the voter, himself, did not choose to vote for could be considered practicing medicine without a license.
    However illegal it already is, it is not difficult to determine it is a violation of the 10th Amendment for the Federal government to use it. The practice should be made against the law to be used by any public official or candidate to seek any public office and in any Federal or State government process.
    Marvin Fox

  • Andy_Lewis

    Only on Opposite Day could David Brooks be classed as any kind of liberal. Any other day, he’s known as a shill for center-right globalist corporatism.

    Seek help.

    • ziggy zoggy

      Brooks is an @$$clown who is far to the left of mainstream America on EVERY issue. And he lies every time he opens his mouth or types on a keyboard. A leftist troll through and through.

      • Andy_Lewis

        Project much?

        • ziggy zoggy

          Yes. Yes you do.

          • Andy_Lewis

            Hocka loogie scores another brilliant point. Oh, wait…

  • nomoretraitors

    I see the point (and I have NO trust in the Obama regime to have our best interests in mind). However, the other side of the coin is we end up paying for all those fat, lazy people after a lifetime of bad choices when they get on Medicare.
    It’s a delicate balancing act — encouraging vs mandating

  • Princeton67atCoxdotnet

    There is nothing “soft” about indoctrination camps.

    • defcon 4

      Indoctrination camps are for the uncommitted fascist. It’s what Indonesia does to those muslimes who renounce islam. It’s what the more civilized Russia did to its dissidents. Stalin and the Ayatollahs of Iran didn’t bother w/indoctrinating the recalcitrant — they had them killed en mass.

  • Fritz

    This is a very accurate description of how things progressed under National Socialist rule in Germany during the 1930s, according to some who were living there at the time. You can call them “left wing” if you want to but Cass Sunstein is in effect parroting the methods of Goebbels and unfortunately Brooks has largely been taken in by this snake oil. Beware of anyone offering a “cure” to all of life’s problems or a utopian republic where all of society is governed by “Philosopher Kings”, it can not work.

    It would be somewhat understandable if the advocates of such things were at least accomplished men like Warren Buffet or Bill Gates but what exactly are these nutjobs like Sunstein accomplished in? They are ivory tower academics, their interaction with the real world is extremely limited, and they are the very model of the unaccomplished, the closest they have come to doing anything is by reading it over in a book, if that. I would gather that if their car had a flat tire or their toilet clogged they wouldn’t have a clue what to do about it.

    A perfect model for the way these people think is a cartoon character called Brainy Smurf, from the 80’s cartoon called the Smurfs. An individual who thinks he can do anything and everything, even if he knows nothing about it, but whenever he tries he usually messes up badly humiliating himself.

  • defcon 4

    They’ll only be nudging people until such time as they can throw them into gulags under the guise of social justice, or just disappear them like any good fascist totalitarian does.

  • physicsnut

    I wonder if ‘nudge’ appears anywhere in the US Constitution ?

  • Anamah

    Unlimited pedantry and their inability to trust the thinking of others. They can not feel empathy to anyone independent of their central powerful entity.

    They are infatuated insisting in this “deja vu”…But this is already known, it is called totalitarian, fascism…absolutism, they are the progressives for big government.
    It can be more or less gruff but their play is to impose federal will over the will of individuals …

    They need to learn the Constitution… our Bill of Rights, and of course the Declaration of Independence..

    These arrogants must learn our history, really understand our long and fruitful journey to appreciate our love of freedom.

    Manipulators are not welcomed in this wonderful Nation….please do not enter!

  • herb benty

    In a nutshell Canadian and American MEN, the Sunsteins intention is to make us similar to Swedish and British men that look sheepishly on as their women are raped by muslims in the droves. American’s will have been fundamentaly transformed into an EU style man……pliable.

  • L Renea Woodward

    Who decides what the correct choices are? They can take their books on nudging and put them where the sun don’t shine. Thank you very. I can make my own choices.