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July 30 2013

Obama Administration Eying British-style Nudge Unit

Vicki E. Alger

The White House plans for a "Behavioral Insights Team,” or “Nudge Unit,” as it’s called in the United Kingdom. Fox News obtained documents about plans to implement such a program here:

The federal government is hiring what it calls a "Behavioral Insights Team" that will look for ways to subtly influence people's behavior…Critics warn there could be unintended consequences to such policies, while supporters say the team could make government and society more efficient. …

While the program is still in its early stages, the document shows the White House is already working on such projects with almost a dozen federal departments and agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. 

"Behavioral sciences can be used to help design public policies that work better, cost less, and help people to achieve their goals," reads the government document describing the program, which goes on to call for applicants to apply for positions on the team.

The document was emailed by Maya Shankar, a White House senior adviser on social and behavioral sciences, to a university professor with the request that it be distributed to people interested in joining the team. The idea is that the team would "experiment" with various techniques, with the goal of tweaking behavior so people do everything from saving more for retirement to saving more in energy costs.


Talk about government overreach. So how’s all this behavioral modification working out in Britain, which instituted its Nudge Unit three years ago? Oliver Letwin, the minister for government policy, testified before a House of Lord’s science committee that the Nudge Unit would be focusing on improving organ donations, getting people to quit smoking, promoting more conspicuous car labeling of energy efficiency, food hygiene, and a project to improve charitable donations of spare change. The problem is that there’s no guarantee that it will work according to Letwin:

Letwin told the Lords science committee, which is conducting an inquiry into behaviour change: "It is of course open to question whether any of this will have any effect whatsoever. I don't want to pretend that behavioural science is a sufficiently developed science to give us complete confidence or even sort of 95% confidence that any given technique will produce given results. It isn't that way. As a matter of fact the science of investigating regulation isn't sufficiently developed to give you that either.

Today, the British government is planning to spin the unit off as a quasi-government owned industry under the guise of public/private partnership.

While British subjects may be okay with that sort of government meddling at their expense, American citizens should seriously question why their hard-earned tax dollars should be funneled into (yet) another dubious federal program. There is no shortage of private sector health, financial, polling, and consumer advocacy groups to help us make informed choices. And the real question remains, since when does the federal government know best? The answer is that it doesn’t. That’s why the Constitution strictly limits its authority.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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