The Geographical Journal

Rule by Nudge: Geographies of Libertarian Paternalism

By Martin Mahony

Much of the debate in the recent US election – when it hasn’t been explicitly focused on GDP and unemployment numbers – has concerned the role of the federal government in the lives of individual citizens. The debate is often cast in terms of ‘big government versus small government’, and the tensions within and between these positions were brought to light in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was forced to retreat from previous comments he had made about reducing the role of the federal government in disaster relief, as plaudits rolled in for the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the hours and days following Hurricane Sandy’s landfall on the East Coast.

In the UK, conservative politicians are more likely to acknowledge the moral and social worth of a centrally-administered welfare system than their US counterparts. However, the debate becomes much more complex when it moves away from questions of taxation and finance and into the everyday realm of people’s behaviour and exercise of choice. Traditionally, conservative thinkers have seen the free-market as the best framework within which citizens can make decisions which add-up to a desirable and democratically legitimate outcome.

However, in light of realizations that human beings aren’t the ‘rational economic actors’ assumed by economic models, a new way of thinking has emerged. ‘Libertarian paternalism’ has come to occupy a central place in the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s thinking. In a new commentary piece in The Geographical Journal, Mark Whitehead and colleagues argue that David Cameron’s embracing of this philosophy (popularized by Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge) is as significant as Margaret Thatcher’s embracing of the free-market neoliberalism of Hayek.

In a blog post on the BBC website, documentary-maker Adam Curtis paints a picture of how behavioural psychology and behavioural economics have come together with emerging cognitive sciences of decision-making to constitute a new tool by which the (British) state seeks to govern its citizens. The idea of ‘nudging’ is that desirable behaviours can be promoted by subtly changing the ‘choice architecture’ within which people make decisions. For example, placing fruit in prominent positions in school canteens is thought to increase fruit consumption, but in a way which doesn’t force anyone to eat the fruit – the power to choose is, ostensibly, still in the hands of the child.

Whitehead et al.’s paper suggests that this philosophy is having a profound effect on the relationship between UK citizens and the state. It is also altering the spatial environments in which we live through the incorporation of ‘nudging’ into everything from urban planning policies to kitchen design. In the past, geographers have made profound contributions to the study of the ethical and political consequences of neoliberal thought. The ascent of libertarian paternalism now offers new challenges and opportunities for geographers as the spatial relationships between the rulers and the ruled are transformed by the rise of the nudge.

 Mitt Romney disaster relief position faces scrutinyThe Huffington Post, 31st October 2012

 From pigeon to Superman and back againBBC – Adam Curtis Blog, 21st October 2012

Mark Whitehead et al., 2012, Geography, libertarian paternalism and neuro-politics in the UK, The Geographical Journal 178 302-307


  1. The very heart of your writing whilst sounding reasonable in the beginning, did not work well with me after some time. Someplace within the paragraphs you actually managed to make me a believer but just for a short while. I however have got a problem with your leaps in assumptions and you might do nicely to help fill in those breaks. If you actually can accomplish that, I will definitely end up being fascinated

  2. Hi Terrano Spirit, thanks for your comment. This was not meant as a polemical piece, rather a descriptive one. I’m therefore not quite sure what I made you a “believer” in. If you could elaborate further then I might be able to fill in some of the gaps you describe.

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