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Volume 29 • Number 3

July 2015



Psychic Costs and Broad Learning Effects: Locating Coercion and Threats to Autonomy in the Use of "Nudges" in Public Policy

by Brett Caloia

Libertarian-paternalism and the attendant concept of "nudging" have received a great deal of attention within public policy and mainstream media in recent years. Nudges alter decision-making contexts where irrationality is common, in an attempt to produce better outcomes. Because of the way they target irrationality, proponents of nudging have argued that their variety of "soft" paternalism is compatible with liberal commitments and can avoid the problems that make traditional "hard" paternalism unpalatable. This paper examines two strategy types that are commonly proposed by nudgers: default enrollment strategies and strategies that impose psychic costs on choosers. I argue that both of these strategies may contain hidden costs that escape traditional analysis. As such, these strategies will not enjoy justification unless empirical studies that aim to capture these costs are employed. However, an examination of the likely costs reveals that the problems with traditional paternalism reappear. Default strategies risk harming autonomy, while some psychic costs are profound enough to qualify as coercive. In both cases, tensions with liberalism become evident. I conclude by offering qualifications to the use of nudges in public policy.

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ISSN: 2152-0542