Nudging the Neoliberal Agenda: Administrative Opportunities in the Deregulated State

Date01 May 2019
Published date01 May 2019
Nudging the Neoliberal Agenda: Administrative Opportunities in the Deregulated State 439
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 3, pp. 439–442. © 2019 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13045.
David Oliver Kasdan
Sungkyunkwan University
Nudging the Neoliberal Agenda: Administrative
Opportunities in the Deregulated State
Abstract: The current climate of neoliberalism in the executive branch is attended by active deregulation and distrust
of the administrative state. As protections are rolled back, there is concern that individuals may be susceptible to
information asymmetries that will influence their decision making, leading to detrimental outcomes for both their own
and the general welfare. Behavioral public administration—the bureaucratic conception of “nudge” theory—offers
ways to counter the pitfalls that come with greater freedom of choice, as promoted by the neoliberal agenda. Public
administrators may employ alternative mechanisms, such as choice architecture, to help people make better decisions
in the absence of explicitly protective regulations. After laying out the argument for a behavioral approach, this article
analyzes several neoliberal agenda issues with potential nudge responses for practical implementation, as well as a
justifiable call for action to protect the public welfare in the absence of policy guidance.
“It is important that for every one new regulation
issued, at least two prior regulations be identified
for elimination.
—Executive Order 13771, signed by President
Donald Trump on January 30, 2017
On several occasions in the twenty-first
century, Republicans have championed
the neoliberal idea that citizens should be
allowed more choice. This is sometimes footnoted
with a proposal to eliminate industry regulations or
curtail policies that were purportedly designed to
protect consumers. Regulations certainly cut both
ways: telling people what they cannot do also liberates
them to do what is not proscribed. Assuming that
the intentions are noble and the true objective of
deregulation is to allow the free market to operate
efficiently, then neoliberalism certainly adheres to
the ethical values of government as promoted by
Sunstein (2016): welfare, autonomy, dignity, and
self-government. Indeed, it promotes a thoroughly
democratic notion in the vein of Hofstadter’s
American Political Tradition of “self-help, free
enterprise, competition, and beneficent cupidity”
(1948, vii). Yet it is a matter of perspective as to
whether a policy is limiting freedom or protecting
welfare; parties at every node on the spectrum have
exerted considerable efforts to frame the same issue in
a way that appeals to their constituents.
In the absence of regulation, people may turn to their
government for guidance in their decisions with the
faith that we are here to help. The current climate
of ever more robust and sophisticated options for
conducting finances, maintaining privacy, sustaining
resources, and everything in between calls for more
assistance by public administration. This can take
many forms, from ad hoc advice by your friendly
street-level bureaucrat to institutionalized mechanisms
that recognize the variance of behavior in context. The
latter kind of help—what is becoming widely known
as “behavioral insights” or “nudges”—is the focus of
this article.
There is no need to advocate the value of behavioral
insights for public administration now. This journal
(e.g., Battaglio et al. 2018) and others have dedicated
hundreds of pages to the subject in the past few years
(e.g., a special symposium of Public Administration,
vol. 95, no. 4) and made the clear case that “nudging”
is a valid tactic for policy design and implementation.
There is also evidence that behavioral biases are
demonstrated by bureaucrats (Bellé, Cantarelli, and
Belardinelli 2018), suggesting that nudges have a
function both within and by public administration.
Yet as the idea of “behavioral public administration
(BPA) (Grimmelikhuijsen et al. 2016; Kasdan 2018)
has been introduced in a politically neutral context,
we cannot ignore that the current administrative
state is under siege (Heidari-Robinson 2017) and
that bureaucrats may need to employ alternative
approaches of this sort to work around executive
blockades in their duty to the public welfare.
This article proceeds with the premises that (1)
BPA is a legitimate approach to policy design and
David Oliver Kasdan is on the faculty
of the Department of Public Administration,
Graduate School of Governance
Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea.
Stephen E. Condrey
and Tonya Neaves,
Associate Editors

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