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Nudges: The MEI calls for oversight of government paternalism

Montreal, September 27, 2023 – There should be oversight of the government’s use of “nudges,” according to a study released by the Montreal Economic Institute this morning.

“At the moment, Canada has no structure in place for the oversight of the use of behavioural science by governments to direct the choices of citizens,” explains Nathalie Elgrably-Lévy, senior economist at the MEI and author of the study. “Nudges, as governance tools, must be circumscribed in order to protect the population from potential excesses and abuses.”

Nudges are uses of behavioural science to prompt individuals, without their knowledge, to make choices considered desirable by those who introduce them, without prohibiting access to other options.

A typical example of a nudge is to place healthful foods at eye level in the grocery store, and to place junk food on a lower level.

In Canada, the Privy Council Office notably equipped itself with a unit of behavioural science experts to propose nudges in order to prompt the population to adopt behaviours considered desirable by the federal government.

The MEI opposes, among other things, the fact that nudges avoid the usual legislative process, the opacity of the implementation process, and ethical issues stemming from their use for political purposes.

The author recommends the following oversight measures:

  • Restrict the use of default choices in order to counter the status quo bias;
  • Extend the political process to nudges, forcing their instigators to defend their initiatives publicly;
  • Create an independent ombudsman position in order to monitor the use and the legitimacy of nudges;
  • Give each nudge an expiration date so that they will be regularly re-evaluated and debated.

“Nudges allow governments to subtly but effectively direct our individual choices for the better without us being fully aware of it,” explains Ms. Elgrably-Lévy. “That’s why overseeing and limiting their use is absolutely essential to preserve the integrity and the freedom of choice of individuals.”

The MEI study is available here.

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The MEI is an independent public policy think tank with offices in Montreal and Calgary. Through its publications, media appearances, and advisory services to policy-makers, the MEI stimulates public policy debate and reforms based on sound economics and entrepreneurship. 

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