Global Governance Centre
25 June 2020

To nudge or not to nudge, of what is the question?

More than just a policy instrument, the nudge – a recent development in public policies – calls for a novel rationality of governance, one grounded in the shaping of the immediate environment: a meso-rationality.


By Emmanuel Robert
Master Candidate in International Relations/Political Science
The Graduate Institute


In recent years, the concept of the nudge has gained currency in common parlance as both an iconic “buzz-word” and a concrete managerial formula for public administrations and private companies alike. Initially a “category of practice”, a folk concept of the English language, the term has morphed into a “category of analysis”, a normative and performative concept affiliated more closely with the paradigm of behavioural economics and the regulation school. Following a re-branding by the behaviourist scholars Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the nudge has become political gospel in some circles whose vitalist, a titular message “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness”  has converted a great many laymen and laywomen to its cause, not only within the temples of academia, but also beyond, diffusing its litany into the world of politics and administration.


As true “mercenary intellectuals, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s evocative metaphor, Thaler and Sunstein can indeed pride themselves in having served as linchpins of important managerial initiatives, which have helped disseminate the litany of the nudge within government agencies and across international organisations. Kickstarted en avant-première by the Behavioural Insights Team inaugurated under the premiership of David Cameron in 2010 in the United Kingdom, a host of nudge-units and nudge-related programmes have started to populate the policy repertoire of public administrations, migrating steadily into the more remote territories of corporate and international governance. From the Mind, Behavior, and Development Unit (eMBeD) of the World Bank to the more recent nomination of the Behavioural Science Advisor to the United Nations, nudging strategies have gained a solid foothold in international institutions, all the more so within development agencies.


As an increasingly privileged instrument of public, private and global governance, nudging techniques have come to be applied to a myriad of socio-economic objectives ranging from increasing tax compliance, improving energy conservation to promoting sanitation practices. Due to the softness of the method, and to the low costs engendered by its implementation, the nudge has been hailed by many policy-makers as a novel antidote to the Steuerungsdefizit (the steering deficiencies) of modern governance. Much like its appellation, the application of the nudge is intended to be simple. The nudge works by making subtle tweaks to the architecture of choice of a targeted individual or group so as to nudge, to induce people quasi-unconsciously towards the election of options and behaviours that are expected to maximise their well-being or that of society. From the use of smaller plates in school canteens to reduce food waste, to the automatic enrolment in organ donation schemes to increase the pool of donors, nudges allow to prompt behaviour changes, to garner stakeholder engagement from targeted populations without having to resort to intrusive, and often coercive “command and control” measures.


Infused with incantatory promises, nudges have not only called upon a thorough revamp of bureaucratic techniques, but more profoundly the transformation of public action itself. More than having only added another layer to the vast repertoire of existent public policies, nudges have inaugurated a novel art de gouverner, an innovative “government of conducts”, which has opened up a new chapter of the mission rationalisatrice of modern societies. Through the promotion of the nudge, Thaler and Sunstein plead for a specific rationality of governance, the emphasis of which is no longer centred on rationalising human actions through conscious learning and pedagogic techniques, but rather through the arrangement of an actor’s immediate choice architecture, a rationality that could be understood as a meso-rationality, a rationality of the immediate environment. Said differently, the credo of the nudge aims much less at inculcating a rational ethos in the minds and spirits of citizens, but much more at setting up rationally-arranged environments within which individuals will be draped in given occasions of choice – at the workplace, in public transports, in front of administrative paperwork, etc.. The meso, the concrete and proximate environment, is thus heralded as the supreme locus of rationality, supplanting what has since Descartes seemed its revered habitat, the human cogito.


This is an excerpt. To read the full article, visit The Global.
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