'Nudging to make the best choices for themselves': The Paradox of Behavioural Economics and Neoliberalism in the SBST 2015 Annual Report
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This text seeks to assess how the use of ‘nudging’ by the US government is framed by the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team. This team of behavioural economists and psychologists advises the Obama administration on how big impacts in policy can be reached by adopting nudging: subtly changing environments to make people behave differently (Thaler and Sunstein 2008). However, ‘nudge units’ like the SBST are criticised because they would function as a ‘rational elite’ that determine which norms should be pushed while foreclosing discussion about what these norms should be (Whitehead et al. 2011). In doing so, nudging is seen a as a technique to make people accept as well as act according to neoliberal ideology (Cromby and Willis 2013, Whitehead et al. 2011, McMahon 2015). In order to assess whether the SBST’s statements indeed aligns with neoliberal ideology, a Foucauldian discourse analysis is conducted of the SBST’s 2015 annual report. In doing so, it is analysed how the report discursively constructs the SBST’s own practices and the image of the American citizen. Through this, it is argued that that the SBST’s discourse aligns with neoliberal thought for multiple reasons. Firstly, it presents its nudges as non-political implementation of scientific findings to meet the wishes of the people instead of persuasive acts. This aligns with principle of laissez-faire while negating the role of the government as interventionistic. Secondly, the SBST constructs an image of the citizen as an autonomous and rational actor similar to the neoliberal image of the citizen as homo oeconomicus. This avoids the paradox of nudging as a method enabling people to make better choices, while also being an intrinsically persuasive practice. This way, it is argued that the report’s discourse indicates a neoliberal ideology, which underpins the criticism on nudging as a method to normalise neoliberalism and foreclosing public discussion on this process.