Westerners are now so used to being nannied by the state that when an official tells us it’s our choice how much to drink and smoke, we are shocked – and many are outraged. But maybe it’s time to push back against all the nudging.
This is what the new Norwegian Health Minister Sylvi Listhaug said that led to calls for her immediate resignation for “setting public welfare back decades.”
“People should be allowed to smoke, drink and eat as much red meat as much as they want,” Listhaug said on national radio.
“I do not plan to be the moral police, and will not tell people how to live their lives, but I intend to help people get information that forms the basis for making choices.”
Note, Listhaug, who has enough enemies as it is for her anti-immigrant views, did not say “Drink more akvavit, it’s great!” nor that smoking or obesity do not cause cancer, nor did she promise that she was going to do nothing to help public health – on the contrary, she announced a new anti-smoking strategy. She merely reaffirmed adults’ rights to consume substances that are perfectly legal, adding that “people know pretty much what is healthy and what is not healthy” and expressed a trust in most citizens to act responsibly towards their own health.
Yet her words are anathema to how public policy is conducted.
“Nudging” has existed as a term since 2008, but some of the underlying theories date back to the mid-20th century, and are aimed at manipulating you into being a better citizen. There are thousands of different ways to nudge – from placing that HPV poster in a prominent spot, to reframing a lung cancer statistic to sound scarier (three times the risk!) to asking an NHS doctor to bring up an unrelated subject during your next routine appointment, to lowering the “acceptable” amount of units of alcohol to be consumed on the basis of little scientific evidence, to making cigarette packaging unattractive and ostracizing smokers in little enclosures that make them feel like social lepers, something Listhaug mentioned specifically.
Nudge explained by Richard H. Thaler, the man who made it mainstream:
The democratic social contract with the state has never been as simple as “you pay your taxes and follow the laws,