Nudging State, Noble Lies


“Not that you lied, but that I no longer believe you, has shaken me” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Nudge is a book by Nobel prize-winning economist Dick Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein, wherein they describe a system of “libertarian paternalism” for State-directed “choice architectures” to improve public policy outcomes by influencing our behavior through clever framing techniques.

To be clear, I’m not applying the word “paternalism” to their work. That’s their word. Because that’s what they think good government is, a father-knows-best apparatus where we unruly teenagers should be pushed and prodded into making better life choices.

In its most basic application, the nudge of “choice architecture” is literally a reframing of formal choices available to us children citizens. Want more organ donors? Why, just make organ donation an opt-out choice rather than an opt-in choice on driver’s license applications. Just make organ donation the default choice, like it is in Austria, and voila! 90% of the population will “choose” to be organ donors. Want to eliminate the various tax and social advantages provided to married couples? Why, just strike the word “marriage” from federal and state laws entirely. Just replace marriage certificates with civil union certificates, and pretty soon people will “choose” civil unions over marriage. Again, I’m not imposing these examples on Thaler and Sunstein’s framework. These are their examples.

As it turns out, though, this sort of literal choice architecture manipulation isn’t that easy to push through the vast inertial blob that is the modern bureaucratic State, as Sunstein personally discovered when he headed up the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama Administration. There are limits, it seems, even to the power of the Executive Order pen to make physical changes in documents at the local motor vehicle registry or the local county courthouse. You can imagine how frustrating this would be for an enlightened father who only wants the best for his kids.

Luckily, however, there are no such inertial barriers to changing the words of government, to using narrative and public communications as instruments to reframe, not mere documents, but the available choice set for political debate.

This sort of narrative nudge, a combination of what Sunstein calls “counterspeech” and “cognitive infiltration” (again, his words), is an appropriate State response whenever a narrative expresses a “false and harmful” view of State agency, such as (his examples) a narrative that Al Qaeda was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks or that the theory of global warming is fraudulent. These “false and harmful” narratives are defined as conspiracy theories, and the people who express those ideas and memes are defined as conspiracy theorists. In Sunstein’s words:

What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help.

Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).

– Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule “Conspiracy Theories” (2008)

What is cognitive infiltration? Again in Sunstein’s own words:

Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.

What makes Sunstein’s notion of cognitive infiltration all the more chilling is that the sole guideline for determining whether a narrative is false and harmful in the first place is a utilitarian notion of “social welfare”, and the sole arbiter of that social welfare is the Executive of the “well-motivated” State (meaning, in a triumph of circular reasoning, a State that is assumed to be motivated by social welfare concerns). Even the Judiciary should fall in line here, with FOIA and similar judicially-applied requests for informational transparency limited by whether or not they “create a net improvement in the government’s overall response strategy” to these terrorists conspiracy theorists.

Cognitive infiltration.

Enhanced interrogation.

Extraordinary rendition.

Civil forfeiture.

This is the bloodless language of our modern smiley-face authoritarians. It’s not a left/right thing. It’s a power thing.

This is the Nudging State.

At the heart of the Nudging State is the intentional misuse of language. You’re not using “counterspeech” to say what you actually believe. You’re using counterspeech instrumentally, as a means to an end of “raising doubts” about a narrative you believe to be harmful to your conception of social welfare. You’re choosing and disseminating your words to create a behavioral response in the listener. Maybe your words are what you believe in your heart of hearts. Maybe they’re not. Doesn’t matter. What matters isn’t whether your words are true, but whether they’re effective.

Imagine if you will an Administration that comes into office on the back of a landslide victory and filibuster-proof legislative majorities, that is faced with the greatest economic depression and financial system corruption in a century, and that decides to build its entire legislative agenda around … [checks notes] … “bending the curve” of aggregate healthcare expenditures by forcing citizens to buy health insurance from a government-approved list of private insurers. Crazy, I know, but bear with me on this hypothetical example. As the head of the White House Office of Information, let’s say that you are tasked with pushing back on any political resistance to this agenda. To be clear, much if not most of the political resistance has no grounding in a principled objection to forcing citizens to buy health insurance; it’s just obstruction for the sake of obstruction, and their methods are base and scurrilous. You believe that their narrative is false and harmful to the social welfare of the United States, and that your fellow citizens are just … not quite smart enough to see through the lies and understand their own self-interest. You believe not only in the power of Nudge, but in the righteousness of Nudge.

So you create a narrative of your own, a narrative that you implore your colleagues and allies in academia, government and media to adopt as their own, a narrative that characterizes legislative roll-back efforts as “heartless cuts” in the number of Americans with health insurance. To support this narrative, you count as “cuts” the estimated number of people who would choose to stop buying insurance if the law didn’t force them to keep buying insurance.

Your nudge and the countless “explainers” of your allies are not a lie per se. Given your linguistic reframing of the word “cut” to mean “people we predict will no longer be compelled to buy health insurance”, the numbers you are using in your counterspeech are factually correct. Sure, you’ve intentionally mangled the common meaning of the word “cut” beyond recognition, but with your non-GAAP, depends-on-what-the-meaning-of-is-is redefinition of the word, a formal parsing of your statement is technically correct.

Are you the first bureaucrat to redefine a word or a metric in service to public relations and legislative combat? Are you the first Administration to see the electorate as a bunch of rubes that have to be lied to for their own good? LOL. Of course not.

But now it’s policy. Now it’s what a good regime ought to do, not what any regime tries to get away with.

Do you know perfectly well that you have shaded and fibbed and framed the data to constrain the available policy choice set into a Hobson’s choice, where if your narrative is successfully disseminated there is effectively no choice at all? Of course you do. Are you a bit embarrassed by all this? A tad concerned that you are intentionally promoting a half-truth at best? Not at all. You sleep like a baby. You believe with all your heart that your words should be judged on their truthiness, not their truth, because that is what the greater social welfare demands.

True believers in the power of Nudge and the righteousness of Nudge do not see smiley-face authoritarian influence over social choice through the misuse of language as the enemy of good government. They see it as the GOAL of good government.

That’s how it started …

And here’s how it’s going.

The story of our institutional response to Covid has been and continues to be a series of truths told with bad intent, a constant effort to nudge and use words instrumentally for partisan or corporate advantage.

A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.

– William Blake

Our narratives of COVID-19 are lies of a particular sort, political narratives that have a nugget of truth within them, but are told with bad intent. They are told this way because it works. Because the nugget of truth hides a deeper, unpleasant truth.

And a Big Lie.

Nowhere do we see the Nudging State in action more than in our government’s policy response to Covid.

Nowhere do we see the failure of the Nudging State – not just in the long-term sense of destroying trust in government but also in the immediate sense of failing their public health goals – than in our government’s policy response to Covid.

Do I think Tony Fauci is a bad guy? No. I think he’s a patriotic American who loves his country, his work and his reputation. I ALSO think he has knowingly shaded and fibbed and framed his public statements for public effect. I ALSO think he believes not only in the power of Nudge, but in the righteousness of Nudge.

I think this has been a terrible mistake.

“Do we want public health officials to report facts and uncertainties transparently? Or do we want them to shape information to influence the public to take specific actions?”

Noble lies are a trap. We cannot predict the public’s behavior, and loss of trust is devastating. The general population is far too skeptical to blindly follow the advice of experts, and far too intelligent to be easily duped.

Kerrington Powell and Vinay Prasad, “The Noble Lies of COVID-19”, July 28, 2021

Please don’t take this as a partisan attack on Tony Fauci just because he’s the favorite target of the MAGA right. My god, no one was more critical of the pathetic Covid policy response and ignoble lies of the Trump Administration than we were.


But this is not the story of one political party’s failure. This is not the story of one President’s failure.

This is the story of the simultaneous failure of every institution we expected to operate in our interest, ALL under the weight of maintaining their belief in the power of Nudge.

The failures of these institutions were failures of narrative, devastating revelations of each institution’s fundamental inability to do what they said they would do.


There are three reasons a person becomes a liar: he believes that he must, he believes that he may, or he believes it serves a Greater Truth.

It is poisonous to ALL of us when the government lies as a matter of POLICY.

Even if it’s a Noble Lie told in service to a Greater Truth.

Especially if it’s a Noble Lie told in service to a Greater Truth.


In the world of Nudge, everyone is an ad man, and the government is just the biggest, baddest ad man of them all.

I am not so naive as to think that the Nudging State is not an apt description of what modern government is.

But it is a terrible prescription for what modern government should be.

Because it destroys what makes this a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

That speech that talked about of the people, by the people, for the people is not even 160 years old. There’s an oak tree on my farm that I’m pretty sure is older than that.

Just read it. Again. As if it were the first time. Please. And as the kids would say, let it sink in.

We must resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. Not just these dead from that battle in Pennsylvania. Not just these dead from every other battle where American soldiers have fallen. But also these 600,000 dead from our battle with Covid. It is for them – ALL OF THEM – that we the living must dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work of our nation. It was unfinished in 1776. It was unfinished in 1863. It is unfinished in 2021. It will never be finished. But we will make it better.


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


Once again we are testing whether this nation, or any nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that ALL of its citizens are created equal, can endure.

It will be the fight of our lives.

Worth it.


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Comments

  1. The problem with “nudges” from the government is that ultimately they are administered at the point of a gun. The government has the authority to compel and any Nudge is a command draped in words meant to conceal that fact. I believe that authority is limited in our government for just that reason and we should be cherry of allowing government authority to expand, especially in personal health decision.

  2. For the first time in a very long while I’m going to disagree with you, Ben. Anthony Fauci is in fact a bad guy. There’s an easy game you can play when it comes to statements made by politicians (and make no mistake, Dr. Fauci is an exquisitely talented politician; how else has he kept his job over seven presidential administrations?). The game is called Stupid or Liar? and it’s simple to play.

    When Dr. Fauci testified that the US did not fund GOF research at the WIV, a claim that has been thoroughly proven, was he lying or is he too stupid to know the truth? I don’t think Dr. Fauci is a stupid man. When he redefined what GOF research actually is at the next Congressional hearing, in what appeared to be an effort to save face, was he lying or is he just a sloppy scientist? I don’t think Dr. Fauci is a sloppy scientist. We can cover more ground but it won’t be necessary. From masks to herd immunity to mask again, Dr. Fauci has simply lied to the American people and covered for his friends who work under the thumb of the CCP. If he was your personal physician you’d have fired him last Fall, if not sooner.

    I would bet a small but meaningful sum of money that Dr. Fauci has read Thaler’s work. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had met and had conversations. They seem cut from the same cloth, personalities made entirely of narcissism and the leftover scraps of meat on the old bones of Wilsonian technocracy. Drop them both in the remote woods of the Pacific Northwest and in a month they’d have starved to death, having failed to convince any rabbits to tie snares around themselves. Institutional rot is an orphan, but we can at least accurately guess who some of the fathers are.

  3. Hard to not agree with D_Y’s assessment of Fauci.
    I would add that success in government requires the understanding that managing sub-optimal answers (lies, stupid answers, etc.) to factual questions is the art of the career government employee as they navigate between politicians, opposing political beliefs/initiatives, and administrations. In contrast we in the private sector optimize against facts and goals. This difference may not be comforting, but as a former Senior Executive Service member I can attest to it’s reality. Former private financial industry executives that came to work for me in DC were all coached to understand that the optimal answer to a question is likely not going to be the politically acceptable answer, so do not be too disappointed/angry. Being part of a government decision, as a private sector executive, is a little like being Cassandra. You know the correct answer, but nobody wants to listen.

  4. “But to manipulate men, to propel them toward goals which you-the social reformers-see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.”

    Isaiah Berlin

  5. In January 2020, seeing Wuhan shut down, I scoped out local Home Depot stores at 6:30 in the morning until I found N95s in stock. The only other buyers were Chinese Americans, buying as many as they could carry. (Things that make you go “hmmmm”.) I bought a few extras that day…and my 90-something parents were grateful to receive them.

    The next month “our” government told us not to bother with masks. Fauci’s allegiance to the Nudge was crystal clear right then, from the very start.

    The later advice to wear “masks” did not make any distinction between N95s and porous paper or cloth. As well documented here on ET, the N95s were basically unavailable by then. “Let them eat cake” --strike that-- “Let them wear cloth” was all they could offer.

    I am glad that many N95s were thereby preserved for health care workers. But I am sorry that our collective faith in government has been so eroded by this kindly, lovable, well-intentioned liar. I respect Fauci, and understand he’s in a tough spot. (Sandy Rich’s comment describes Fauci’s predicament perfectly.) But Fauci is saying what he needs to say, apparently thinking “You can’t handle the truth!”

    The most effective lies are built on a kernel of truth. Governmental dissembling is the foundation of incredibility others exploit to undermine the goals the dissembling sought to promote.

  6. I had yet to really wrap my mind around the “nudging State” theme, thanks for this context Ben. The best ET posts either make me soar with optimism or leave me in the doldrums; this is one of the latter. Government that is honest requires leaders who are honest, and our society simply does not reward honesty at the expense of effectiveness. We are a nation of marketers, and the Nudge seems to be what we are all incentivized (trained?) to do. I agree with your assessment of Fauci as a well trained Nudger, and would caution his fiercest critics to consider the sheer number of those responsible who are very happy to have a scapegoat. The “system” to protect us from a threat like Covid doesn’t exist, despite what we might have thought at the beginning of 2020. Public health officials who have everything to lose from a false alarm and almost nothing to lose from being one of thousands who couldn’t have possibly seen this coming combined with an administration whose Noble Lie is government can’t be good at anything so lets set the “Deep State” up to fail the way we always told you it would. Pretty miserable stuff when thinking how it could ever be different next time.

  7. Having only attended two on-line events, I don’t know much about this group. I thought this debate was timely to your Note as media is used extensively to perform the nudge:
    Is American media a threat to our free speech? How does it affect our democracy? Join Braver Angels to debate. Tomorrow 8-10PM

  8. Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.”

    Goebbels. Yeah, that guy and that group.

    Fauci is a liar. Plain and simple. And now he wants us to hate the non-vaccinated. The country would be better off if Fauci had retired 10 years ago. And Fauci retiring today would be the second best choice.

  9. When government employees start tailoring their answers and actions away from what is right and truth, in the name of what is politically expedient, we see Nudging behaviour writ large. What are the limiting principles in the face of “political expediency”?

  10. H/t to Adam Carolla of course

  11. I am not advocating. I am just describing. I recommend a re-read of the last three sentences of my post.

  12. On the subject of Government Nudging, the Obama Administration stood up the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST). Their intent was to nudge the U.S. population towards the political objectives of the Administration. You can find their annual reports in the Obama Administration Document Archives. No need to wager, there is no question about the influence of Thaler and the desire of government to nudge the population.
    To avoid any misunderstanding, knowledge of a thing does not imply agreement with it’s existence.

  13. I suspect you have some good points in this comments since you got a few likes, but you lost me at casting aspersions on Chinese people in the first paragraph. Perhaps, like you, they were buying them for friends, family, or their church.

    BTW, when I had trouble buying masks at that time, friends and family from Taiwan sent me some of theirs that had been given to them by the government.

    Hoarding is often a side effect of a broken system and not always broken people.

  14. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    To reinforce what Chris is saying here … as many of you know, in March of 2020, the Epsilon Theory team organized a group to secure N95 masks and distribute them directly to nurses, docs, EMTs and other frontline heroes in our fight against Covid. Working with the Chinese office of Intel, we set up an “underground railroad” of high-quality KN95 masks where dozens of individual Chinese citizens, with zero reward and no motivation other than helping fellow humans, personally bought KN95 masks and personally mailed them here to us - complete strangers - in the States. They did this every day. They paid for this out of their own pocket in hopes that we would eventually reimburse them (we did). What is clear eyes and full hearts? This.

  15. Not to mention the fact that in a ton of Asian cultures mask wearing is much more commonplace than it was in the US pre-Covid.

  16. Thank you, Ben. This is exactly what I needed today.

    If we cannot embrace the messiness that is “by the people,” if we can’t lean into a trust and even an admiration of our neighbors and rely on them to – maybe after trying other paths – ultimately migrate to the truth, then we really have a problem with the concept of a representative democracy.

    I replied to you on Twitter recently something along the lines of: I believe in the Noble Lie and the idea that honorable people must sometimes lie for the greater good, but what makes it “noble” is that there are consequences for the lie. If someone can lie with impunity and even be applauded for it, then it ceases to be noble and becomes merely corruption.

  17. I was close friends with many hopeful MDs in undergrad. Most now are. Their focused training, akin to the training to become elite athletes, was specifically to be on the front line of saving lives. I honestly can’t imagine what it would take for any of them, within a decade after residency, to leave the front line to be a bureaucrat.

    When someone has sacrificed years of their life to attain something so difficult, then having achieved it, completely abandons the function and keeps only the form, we would be wise to be skeptical of them.

    From the beginning of covid, we should all have seen Fauci first as a bureaucrat before considering him as a doctor. Taking his nemesis, we should view Rand Paul as first a politician. Ron Paul though had years as a practicing physician, as did Ben Carson. Kim Schrier, MD (D-CA) got involved in politics because of her frustration with the health system. As has Carolyn McClanahan who still actively works in the ED and as a CFP, while being active in politics on the Democratic side. My favorite follow for Indiana info through the early days of covid was @gbosslet a critical care pulmonologist who was told by partners to stay home because his wife had cancer. So he focused on reading everything and informing the public, which included views about administration policy. His personal political views are clearly left of mine. But he’s a doctor not a politician.

    I will always be skeptical about someone appearing in a form that demands unrecoverable and immense personal sacrifice, quickly abandoned all the function of it. Maybe we should just stop giving any attention to those wearing lapel pins that say “expert” and see if they behave as an expert would first.

  18. “Do I think Tony Fauci is a bad guy? No. I think he’s a patriotic American who loves his country, his work and his reputation.”

    This is a hilarious take.

    Ben can see through the bullshit manipulation is the BLS’s monthly data-dump, but seems to think the same kind of captured losers can’t run the NIH (600,000 dead!!!). Ironic that Ben wrote an entire article on Gell-Mann amnesia.

  19. "Do I think Tony Fauci is a bad guy? No. I think he’s a patriotic American who loves his country, his work and his reputation. I ALSO think he has knowingly shaded and fibbed and framed his public statements for public effect. I ALSO think he believes not only in the power of Nudge, but in the righteousness of Nudge. "

    1. There must certainly be some, but I cannot think of a single public voice other than Ben that both correctly expressed concern about Covid AND heavily, frequently and brutally criticized Tony Fauci as early as March 2020.
    2. This construction (“I think he’s a patriotic American who loves his country, his work and his reputation”) is a stylistically perfect and tight example of the lost art of the subtle, backhanded takedown. I’m biased, but that is Oscar Wilde-level bon mot shit. Do you…really read this as a compliment?
    3. I’m no arbiter of such things - others are free to read and feel about it how they will - but I think cutting out the sentences that followed your excerpt (which ErpichtAuf helpfully linked) to take a swing was not especially clear-eyed nor full-hearted.
  20. The nudge is the result of citizens rendering ourselves as consumers.

    I cannot think of a better example of this than the Sturgis gatherings, at which a marketed lifestyle is celebrated as an expression of personal freedom.

    So, yeah, government became an ad man. 75% of the nation supported the invasion of Iraq. That’s successful marketing, even if the policy itself was disastrous.

    It’ll take a rejection of our consumer identity, clear eyes/full heart, to recover our identity as citizens participating in our community.

  21. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    The adverse and widespread impact of the consumerization of the individual is something it took me an embarrassingly long time to come around on.

  22. The subtle, backhanded takedown struck me as being Shakespearean. It reminded me of Marc Anthony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral in Julius Caesar.

  23. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Yes, my initial draft of that reply referenced exactly that speech. :slight_smile:

  24. It’s a real problem.

    Consumerism fosters both powerlessness and irresponsibility. We choose only from options we are offered, why should we be responsible for the effects of our choices?

    And yet, as consumers we define ourselves by the choices we make even when (especially when?) we despise the options we are provided. It seems the more we despise our options, the more stridently we defend the choices we make and the identity those choices confer.

    I appreciate you guys because you ask the right question, “Why am I seeing/reading/hearing this now?” and you understand that a clear eyes/full heart pack has to be actual to be effective.

  25. Rusty, you are right about the stylistic goodness, which isn’t lost on anyone, I don’t think. But the part about it I think you’re making a mistake about is this: “Do I think he’s a bad guy? No”.

    So, maybe I’m more conspiratorial than the rest of the pack here, but Fauci has never once spoken about vitamin D, being less fat, etc. etc. It is clear to any reasonable observer that he is, actually, a bad guy, and maybe a patriot at the same time. He is beholden to corporate pharmaceutical interests more than he is to the actual health of Americans.

    Is part of the joke that ben actually thinks he’s a bad guy? Cause then, that’s lost on me.

    He is a bad guy. The evidence is all there.

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