The question of whether it is legitimate for governments to coerce people for their own good has long been an important one in politics. Ever since the birth of liberal thought, some critics have worried that, freed from the constraints of authority or tradition, people will make the "wrong choices."
From censorship of "dangerous" books and ideas to prohibition of alcohol and restrictions on smoking, there is a long tradition of authoritarian intervention to save people from themselves. Thaler and Sunstein's influential 2008 book, Nudge, sparked an ongoing debate about a new brand of "libertarian paternalism." Rather than actually coercing people, the authors argue that by giving thought to "choice architecture," governments can nudge people into making better decisions for themselves, society and the environment.
From setting defaults to encourage employees to pay into pension funds, to using psychological tricks to encourage recycling, the authors suggest various ways of encouraging desired behavior without compromising autonomy.
Is it childish to object to such "nudges," as long the final decision rests with us, or do they represent a patronizing affront to our individual autonomy? Is this really libertarian, or just a more subtle form of the "nanny state," as confident as ever that the experts knows best? Who decides what kind of behavior is desirable or otherwise?
Shouldn't such questions be subject to open debate rather than handed over to geeky "choice architects" who treat the public as lab rats? Is "nudging" a means of governing without winning any arguments? Or should we be happy to go with the flow in such trivial matters?
Philip Collins is a writer on The London Times and a Senior Visiting Fellow in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. He was, until July 2007, Chief Speech Writer to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, in 10 Downing Street.
Between 2000 and 2004, he was Director of the Social Market Foundation (SMF), an independent think-tank and charity. Prior to that, Mr. Collins spent five years as an investment banker, ending his time in the City as the top ranked equity strategist in the smaller companies sector. He has also worked as a political assistant to Frank Field MP, for the Institute of Education at the University of London and for the BBC and London Weekend Television.
Dr. Stuart Derbyshire is a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology, University of Birmingham. Derbyshire has recently worked in the U.S. as Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in the Department of Anesthesiology, and as Assistant Professor at the UCLA/CURE Neuroenteric Disease Program in the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.
Derbyshire has also been a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh in the Departments of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine. Derbyshire has published extensively in the area of medicine, particularly around the scientific understanding of pain.
Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas (IoI), which she established to create a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint.
Fox initiated the IoI while co-publisher of the current affairs journal LM magazine (formerly Living Marxism). The IoI has since worked with a variety of prestigious institutions in Britain and abroad.
Fox is a panelist on BBC Radio 4's "The Moral Maze" and is regularly invited to comment on developments in culture, education and the media on TV and radio. Fox writes regularly for national newspapers and a range of specialist journals. Fox has a monthly column in the Municipal Journal.
Tim Montgomerie edits ConservativeHome with Jonathan Isaby. He launched the website on Easter Monday, 2005, with the aims of championing grassroots party members and advocating a balanced, authentic conservatism.
He studied Economics and Geography at Exeter University before joining the Bank of England in 1992 where his responsibilities included the Russian economy and the study of systemic risk in financial systems.
With David Burrowes, Tim established the Conservative Christian Fellowship in December 1990. He was its Director for thirteen years - first in his spare time and then full-time.
From 1998 to 2003 he ran the Conservative Party's outreach to faith communities and the voluntary sector. His responsibilities including writing speeches for two Conservative Party leaders, William Hague and then Iain Duncan Smith.
Tim was Iain Duncan Smith's chief of staff for his last two months as Conservative leader and throughout 2004 helped him to establish the Centre for Social Justice.
Peter Taylor-Gooby is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Kent and Director of the ESRC Social Contexts and Responses to Risk Programme.
He is a Fellow of the British Academy, a Founding Academician at AcSS, a participant in the Prime Minister's No 10 'progressive consensus' Round Table and Advisor to Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, 2009 onwards, President of the Sociology and Social Policy section of the BAAS, 2005-6, a Fellow of the RSA, co-director of the Risk Research Centre at Beijing Normal University, 2008 onwards, State-appointed Visiting Foreign Expert to China 2008-11, Distinguished Visitor, Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and Central Policy Unit Special Advisor, 2008-9 and Chair of the Social Policy and Social Work Research Assessment Exercise Panel 2001 and 2008, and member of the Research Excellence Framework Expert Advisory Group, 2004-9.