The Dark Side of Nudging: The Ethics, Political Economy, and Law of Libertarian Paternalism

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Libertarian paternalism, as advanced by Cass Sunstein, is seriously flawed, but not primarily for the reasons that most commentators suggest. Libertarian paternalism and its attendant regulatory implications are too libertarian, not too paternalistic, and as a result are in considerable tension with ‘thick’ conceptions of human dignity. We make four arguments. The first is that there is no justification for a presumption in favor of nudging as a default regulatory strategy, as Sunstein asserts. It is ordinarily less effective than mandates; such mandates rarely offend personal autonomy; and the central reliance on cognitive failures in the nudging program is more likely to offend human dignity than the mandates it seeks to replace. Secondly, we argue that nudging as a regulatory strategy fits both overtly and covertly, often insidiously, into a more general libertarian program of political economy. Thirdly, while we are on the whole more concerned to reject the libertarian than the paternalistic elements of this philosophy, Sunstein’s work, both in Why Nudge?, and earlier, fails to appreciate how nudging may be manipulative if not designed with more care than he acknowledges. Lastly, because of these characteristics, nudging might even be subject to legal challenges that would give us the worst of all possible regulatory worlds: a weak regulatory intervention that is liable to be challenged in the courts by well-resourced interest groups. In such a scenario, and contrary to the ‘common sense’ ethos contended for in Why Nudge?, nudges might not even clear the excessively low bar of doing something rather than nothing. Those seeking to pursue progressive politics, under law, should reject nudging in favor of regulation that is more congruent with principles of legality, more transparent, more effective, more democratic, and allows us more fully to act as moral agents. Such a system may have a place for (some) nudging, but not one that departs significantly from how labeling, warnings and the like already function, and nothing that compares with Sunstein’s apparent ambitions for his new movement.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationChoice Architecture in Democracies
Subtitle of host publicationExploring the Legitimacy of Nudging
EditorsAlexandra Kemmerer, Christoph Möllers, Maximillian Steinbeis, Gerhard Wagner
Place of PublicationBaden Baden
PublisherNomos (Baden-Baden)
Number of pages65
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-8452-6393-9
ISBN (Print)978-3-8487-2288-4
Publication statusPublished - 16 Dec 2016

Publication series

NameRecht im Kontext


  • Nudging, Choice Architecture, Libertarian Paternalism, Regulation

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