Cosma Shalizi and I have an article on Thaler/Sunstein and democratic politics in the current issue of New Scientist. The title is a bit misleading (our problem with nudging isn’t that it’s coercive; it’s that it doesn’t have much in the way of feedback), but we’ll stick by the main text.
“Nudging” is appealing because it provides many of the benefits of top-down regulation while avoiding many of the drawbacks. Bureaucrats and leaders of organisations can guide choices without dictating them. Thaler and Sunstein call the approach “libertarian paternalism”: it lets people “decide” what they want to do, while guiding them in the “right” direction.
…This points to the key problem with “nudge” style paternalism: presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves. There is no reason to think technocrats know better, especially since Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats’ prescriptions. This leaves the technocrats with no systematic way of detecting their own errors, correcting them, or learning from them. And technocracy is bound to blunder, especially when it is not democratically accountable.
… democratic arrangements, which foster diversity, are better at solving problems than technocratic ones. Libertarian paternalism is seductive because democratic politics is a cumbersome and messy business. Even so, democracy is far better than even the best-intentioned technocracy at discovering people’s real interests and how to advance them. It is also, obviously, better at defending those interests when bureaucrats do not mean well.