Simpler: The Future of Government By Cass R Sunstein

Book review: Simpler - The Future of GovernmentCass R Sunstein advocates the role of the government in coaxing people into making better choices. But not everyone agrees, says Matthew Partridge.


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Five years ago, legal scholar Cass R Sunstein wrote Nudge in collaboration with economist Richard Thaler. The book, which argued that policymakers had much to learn from understanding how people really make decisions, was "the most influential of the recent crop of behavioural economics books", says Tim Harford in the Financial Times.

Sunstein was appointed by US president Barack Obama to run the American body that scrutinises new regulations on everything from cutting carbon emissions to overhauling health care. He stepped down last August. Simpler: The Future of Government is the account of how Sunstein applied his theories it's "Nudge shifted to the past tense".

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As Fortune's Tory Newmyer notes, Sunstein disagrees with conventional economists who think people are "rational actors who will act in their own best interest". Instead, they often make flawed and irrational decisions. So the government's job is to encourage them to make better choices and "protect them from their more self-destructive impulses" via small, well-targeted, policy "nudges".

Sunstein therefore came up with four principles for rulemaking: "keep regulations simple and clear; let citizens choose while giving them information and encouragement to choose well; make sure regulations don't impose a disproportionate burden; and keep track of how well they are working".

Some critics took an instant dislike to Sunstein's approach former Fox News host Glenn Beck once labelled him "the most evil man in America". As Publishers Weekly notes, many conservatives felt he advocated state interference where there should be none, while liberals disliked his pro-regulation approach. Yet overall, Sunstein should be praised for his "vision of technocratic government that's both efficient and humane".

Nonsense, says Lisa Heinzerling, writing for ThinkProgess, a blog. The main message of this "revealing book" is that Sunstein was quite capable of disregarding the basic principles of transparency, and even explicit laws, in pursuit of his goals. His ability to veto other government bodies and agencies allowed him to make decisions without proper justification. He was "politically unaccountable" and "preternaturally secretive".

Harford is also ultimately sceptical. Many of Sunstein's ideas are "worth a try" and "US political junkies" will find his war stories "engaging", but he would prefer to see "an independent analysis of how well all these nudges' are working". As he warns, "simplicity is a sound ambition but in a complex world we should also check for unintended consequences".

Simpler: The Future of Government by Cass R Sunstein. Published by Simon & Schuster (£17.07).

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri