The Segway of Social Science

My review of Nudge by Sunstein and Thaler, which appears in the October edition of Reason is finally online. Here’s how it starts:

At first blush, “libertarian paternalism” seems a linguistic miscarriage, a self-crippling idea condemned to limp aimlessly in eternal darkness on the island of misfit creeds alongside “humanitarian sadism” and “color-blind racism.” But that hasn’t stopped Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, law and economics superstars at the University of Chicago, from pushing the catchphrase and concept as a solution to the nation’s problems for a half-decade now. And this year libertarian paternalism has achieved manifesto status with the new Thaler/Sunstein book,Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness

In Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein argue that new findings in psychology should be used to help people and thereby chart an exciting “third way” beyond the exhausted politics of left and right. The book offers a list of inventive policy tweaks, some with a welcome libertarian flavor. But the modesty of the proposals mocks the occasional grandeur of the rhetoric and should put to rest any hopes or fears that the authors’ brand of applied “behavioral economics” will soon transform the ideological landscape. Remember when that dork chariot, the Segway, was supposed to utterly reshape transportation? Libertarian paternalism is a lot like that: an innovative but overhyped dud.

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