Bounded Rationality without Bounded Democracy: ‘Nudges,’ Democratic Citizenship, and Pathways Forward for Building Civic Capacity

Bounded Rationality without Bounded Democracy: ‘Nudges,’ Democratic Citizenship, and Pathways Forward for Building Civic Capacity

by Mark E. Button, University of Utah

The behavioral sciences are playing an increasingly important role in the design and implementation of public policy worldwide. While there have been several important critiques of the latest policy revolution linking the behavioral sciences and the state in the pursuit of human behavioral change, few scholars have investigated the potential costs of “nudging” for democratic citizenship and the deliberative capacities upon which democratic self-governance relies. A central purpose here is to consider the possible civic consequences of nudging within the pursuit of otherwise desirable social outcomes (like improved public health, energy conservation, or higher rates of financial saving). Through a critical investigation of the governing philosophy of the “nudging state” and drawing on the policy feedback literature, I argue that the recent behavioral turn in public policy risks overlooking or bypassing the personal capacities and institutional conditions necessary for the meaningful exercise of democratic citizenship. Evidence from the empirical assessment of deliberative democracy shows how liberal societies can fruitfully address bounded rationality while facilitating civic virtues like public practical reason without violating liberty or constraining pluralism.

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Perspectives on Politics, Volume 16Issue 4, December 2018, pp. 1034-1052