Cass Sunstein is a law professor who worked in the Obama White House. He dealt with matters of regulation, and has a keen interest in how (generally bad) program design and administration prevents action, e.g., sludge. He also is an expert on behavioral economics — he wrote Nudge with Richard Thaler. The idea of sludge and of nudges are related but different terms which he helpfully constrasts. So what can he tell us about sludges and nudges. (I apologize for my use of sludges, adding an ‘s’ to a term that is one of those strange words which is its own plural. Sludge and Nudges just didn’t rhyme).
The problem of design choices preventing action can happen anywhere but Sunstein, with his government focus, notes many examples from public life. One of the most shocking is hassles, a form of sludge, which make voting unnecessarily difficult in many US states. Why do people in the US have to register to vote rather than being automatically registered?
Outside of the United States, automatic voter registration is not uncommon.Sunstein, 2022, page 17
To be clear, sludge can be deliberate as it may be in the case of voting. It is possible to make voting easy, yet it doesn’t happen.
There are other examples, such as in the realm of occupational licenses that can be excessively hard to get. This can be a form of administrative protection for those who already have the licenses.
Perhaps the worst thing about sludge is that its delays, complications, and hassles often hurt the poor and least administratively savvy the most. Those with the least resources to cope as the ones who tend to experience the worst hassles from sludge.
It Can Be Good Though
That said, sludge isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It could be beneficial if it slows people down and gets them to think before taking a debatable action. Often in certain situations, whether you think a bit of sludge slowing things down is good can depend upon your values. A waiting period for a gun is sludge. Waiting periods certainly can annoy people. But it could theoretically be a good thing if it stops a temporarily irate person from doing something terrible that they wouldn’t do when calmer. (I’m English so I think if you want a gun this automatically makes me worry that you are not the sort of person who can be trusted with a gun. Still, I’m not 100% sure everyone in Georgia holds the same opinion).
To be fair, in government, those designing the rules often have to balance concerns about ineligible people getting benefits, which sludge can help avoid, against concerns that those who are eligible don’t get the benefits because of sludge. The correct balance between wasting money on the ineligible and deterring the eligible recipients can be a value judgment.
The point is that, although Sunstein is generally anti-sludge, it can have its justifications.
Sludges And Nudges
A nudge is an intervention that aims to guide towards a better decision but preserves the choice of the person. It can be as simple as making (what the person structuring the decision) thinks is a good choice available in one step but making the decision-maker have to go to another page to take a different ‘less good’ option. This works as people often take the easy option. Nudges by their nature are well-meaning. Still, they obviously can backfire if not done properly or if the person is nudged towards the wrong option.
Sunstein explains the relationship between sludges and nudges. He provides a table (page 10) that I have slightly adapted.
Overall, you would usually do well to get rid of sludge, but sometimes a bit of sludge can be used for good purpose.
Read: Cass Sunstein (2022) Sludge: What Stops Us From Getting Things Done And What To Do About It, Penguin Random House