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Theory and practice of nudges: legal and political issues

This first issue of the journal Nomopolis aims to examine the issues at stake in the theory and practices of nudges through the prism of law and political science.

Nudges are used to encourage people to adopt a "good" behaviour. Whether it is a matter of placing healthy food in school canteens so that it is chosen first, of painting the stairs in the subway to make their use more fun and therefore more frequent, of automatically registering citizens on the organ donors list (and imposing administrative procedures for withdrawing their registration) or of using social pressure by informing them of the percentage of inhabitants of the same town who have already paid their taxes, the aim is to discreetly influence people to make specific decisions.

Drawing on social psychology and behavioural economics, nudge theory was proposed by the economist Richard H. Thaler and the legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein [Thaler and Sunstein, 2008]. It is based on the idea that individual choices can only be based on imperfect rationality due to cognitive biases: individuals are deemed to be ill-informed and inconsistent, they act automatically and make daily decisions that are detrimental to their interests or those of the community. Therefore, it would be useful and legitimate to use "soft" incentive techniques in order to bring about a change in behaviour and to lead them to make the "right" choices in terms of health, safety, environment, etc.

Au cœur de cette idée réside la notion d’« architecture du choix » qui rend compte des procédures par lesquelles les options offertes aux individus sont aménagées et structurées de manière à orienter leur comportement dans une direction spécifique. Il s’agit selon les auteurs d’une incitation non-coercitive, qui laisse ouverte la possibilité d’un « mauvais » choix.

Based on this logic of non-coercive incentives, Thaler and Sunstein have proposed the term "libertarian paternalism" to describe the use of nudges. According to them, it is "a relatively weak, soft, and nonintrusive type of paternalism because choices are not blocked, fenced off, or significantly burdened." [Thaler and Sunstein, 2008]. This approach would allow "both private and public institutions to steer people in directions that promote their welfare" [Thaler and Sunstein, 2003]. If paternalism is defined as state intervention designed to steer citizens into making the "right" choices or opting for a "good" (healthier, greener, more supportive...) way of life, then nudges would be its least invasive (hence "libertarian") form, a source of "better governance". In the context of North American political debates, the goal was to take a middle path between the supporters of state regulation based on coercion and the advocates of laissez-faire.

This theory has generated a certain amount of enthusiasm, amplified when Thaler received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2017, and various applications have emerged. At the level of private companies, nudges have been used to increase the productivity of employees or to prevent occupational risks. At the state level, particularly in England and the United States, they have raised hopes in the fight against tax fraud, in public health [Quigley, 2013] or in the aim of modernising public action [Chevallier, 2018]. There has been a proliferation of "nudge units" to advise election candidates, governments or international organizations.

This raises a number of questions that the first issue of Nomopolis wishes to address.

  1. Nudges are similar to "soft law" [Emeric, 2017; Sée, 2018] whose legal effects are uncertain. Is there not a risk that the state will end up preferring to "steer our conduct using psychology instead of legislation” [Flückiger, 2018]? Thus, the absence of a legal framework raises concerns like the possibility of judicial review, for example in the case of liability for damage caused or possible infringements of fundamental rights and individual freedoms. More broadly, what are the implications of using nudges in the various branches of law (consumer law, tax law, labour law, etc.)? These questions deserve to be studied. This would open up a new field of research at the crossroads of behavioural and legal sciences [Sibony, Helleringer, Alemanno, 2016].
  1. Similarly, this practice involves transparency issues. To what extent are the citizens or consumers aware that they are being subjected to cognitive and behavioural nudges? Despite Thaler’s desire to distinguish between good and bad nudges [Sunstein, 2015: Thaler, 2018; Hacker, 2018], the use of nudges raises questions about consent and the right to information, and more generally about the ethics of these practices.
  1. More generally, the use of nudges, like any paternalist approach, establishes an asymmetrical relationship [Donegani, 2011] between experts called upon to define what is best for individuals or the community, and the rest of citizens, for example in the area of public health [Orobon, 2013]. The legal and political status of these experts has to be analysed, as well as the "benevolence" premise of governments implicit in Thaler and Sunstein’s approach. Who defines "good behaviour", and based on which criteria? The problem could thus stem from the "small democratic scale" of the nudge government project [Bergeron, Castel, et al., 2018] and the lack of public debate about them [Dworkin, 2020].
  1. Another aspect is that there is no consensus on the notion of "libertarian paternalism". While not coercive, nudges have been described as manipulative [Goodwin, 2012] and undermining citizens' autonomy and their right to make "bad choices", for example with respect to their health [Hurd, 2015]. They may be more restrictive than other forms of "soft" paternalism, such as that advocated by Joel Feinberg in the field of criminal law [Feinberg, 1986]. Moreover, the choice architecture may reduce the options available to individuals in their daily lives. Not only have nudges been accused of hindering the capacity for individual deliberation [Citton, 2017], but their discreet dimension could make them particularly dangerous for liberties [Rebonato, 2013] and could make them a new way of controlling people. They would thus mark the transition from biopolitics to " mindpolitics" [Peeters and Schuilenburg, 2017].
  1. Finally, it is the scale of use and efficiency of nudges that can be questioned. Their supporters generally defend their contribution in certain circumstances (regulating queues, helping to maintain cleanliness in a public place), but Thaler and Sunstein postulate their effectiveness on a wider scale. What about their use at the European Union level [Sibony and Alemanno, 2015]? More importantly, can they be considered effective for more global problems such as the environmental crisis, or is their level of intervention too limited due to their blindness to socio-political antagonisms [Schlag, 2010]?


Bergeron Henri, Castel Patrick, Dubuisson-Quellier Sophie, Lazarus Jeanne, Nouguez Étienne, Pilmis Olivier, Le Biais comportementaliste, Paris, Presses de Sciences po, 2018.

Chevallier Jacques, « Les Nudges dans la modernisation de l’action publique », in Bozzo-Rey Malik, Brunon-Ernst Anne, (dir.), Nudges et normativités : Généalogies, concepts et applications, Paris, Hermann, 2018, p. 227-238.

Citton Yves, « Le court-circuitage néolibéral des volontés & des attentions », Multitudes, vol. 3, n° 68, 2017, p. 21-34

Donegani Jean-Marie, « Le paternalisme, maladie sénile du libéralisme ? », Raisons politiques vol. 4, n° 44, 2011, p. 5-13.

Dworkin Gerald, « Paternalism », The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) :

Emeric Nicolas. « Droit souple + droit fluide = droit liquide. Réflexion sur les mutations de la normativité juridique à l’ère des flux », Revue interdisciplinaire d’études juridiques, vol. 79, n° 2, 2017, p. 5-38.

Feinberg, Joel, Harm to Self, The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law, vol. 3, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Flückiger Alexandre, « Gouverner par des « coups de pouce « (nudges) : instrumentaliser nos biais cognitifs au lieu de légiférer ? », Cahier du Droit, vol. 59, n° 1, 2018, p. 199-227.

Goodwin Tom, « Why We Should Reject ‘Nudge’ », Politics, vol. 32, n° 2, 2012, p. 85-92.

Hacker Philipp, « Nudging and Autonomy. A Philosophical and Legal Appraisal », in Micklitz Hans-W., Sibony Anne-Lise, Esposito Fabrizio (dir.), Research Methods in Consumer Law, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018, p. 77-118.

Hurd Heidi, « Fudging Nudging: Why ‘Libertarian Paternalism’ is the Contradiction It Claims It’s Not » Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy, vol. 14, 2016, p. 703-734.

Orobon Frédéric, « Le « paternalisme libéral », oxymore ou avenir de l’État-providence ? », Esprit, n° 7, juillet 2013, p. 16-29

Peeters Rick., & Schuilenburg Marc., « The birth of mindpolitics : Understanding nudging in public health policy », Social Theory & Health, n° 2, 2017, p. 138-159.

Quigley Muireann, « Nudging for health: on public policy and designing choice architecture », Medical Law Review, n° 4, Autumn 2013, . 588–621.

Rebonato Riccardo, « A Critical Assessment of Libertarian Paternalism », Journal of Consumer Policy, vol. 37, n° 3, 2014, p. 357–396.

Schlag Pierre, « Nudge, Choice Architecture, and Libertarian Paternalism », Michigan Law Review, vol. 108, n° 6, 2010, p. 913-924

Sée Arnaud, « Le droit administratif à l’épreuve des nudges », in Bottini Fabien (dir.), Néolibéralisme et américanisation du droit, Paris, Mare & Martin, 2019, p. 153-166.

Sibony Anne-Lise et Alemanno Alberto (dir.), Nudge and the Law: A European Perspective, Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2015.

Sibony Anne-Lise, Geneviève Helleringer, et Alberto Alemanno (dir.), « L’analyse comportementale du droit. Manifeste pour un nouveau champ de recherche en Europe », Revue internationale de droit économique, t. XXX, n° 3, 2016, p. 315-338.

Sustein, Cass R., Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the Value of Choice, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Thaler Richard H., et Sustein, Cass R., « Libertarian Paternalism », The American Economic Review, vol. 93, n° 2, 2003, p. 175-179.

Thaler Richard H., et Sustein, Cass R., Nudge : Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2008.

Thaler Richard H., « Nudge, not sludge », Science, vol. 361, n° 6401, 2018, p. 431.

The Reading Committee will examine all papers dealing with these issues from the different areas of law and political science.

  • Deadline for proposal submission (one page) : March 5, 2023 at the address:
  • Proposals will be evaluated by the Editorial Board which will give a first feedback.
  • Final articles should conform to the submission procedures and be sent before May 1, 2023.
  • Articles can be in English or in French.