Anti-Democratic Tenets? Behavioural-Economic Imaginaries of a Future Food System

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2463

Article | Open Access

Anti-Democratic Tenets? Behavioural-Economic Imaginaries of a Future Food System


  • Tobias Gumbert Institute of Political Science, University of Münster, Germany


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Abstract:  This article makes the central argument that basic democratic values such as justice, autonomy and participation run the risk of being neglected when designing ‘nudges’ (i.e., indirect suggestions to influence individual behaviour) for sustainable behaviour change in the context of food governance, potentially complicating a democratisation of the food system. ‘Nudges’ uphold freedom of choice while simultaneously advocating a non-coercive soft force of paternalism to help people realise their preferences, maximise societal well-being and meet macro-sustainability goals. While the promises of the ‘nudge’ approach are widely echoed, nudging is also being contested because of its possible anti-democratic effects, such as individualisation, depoliticization and the emphasis of the status of citizens as ‘consumer-citizens.’ From a food democracy perspective, these dangers may undermine efforts to organise collective political action and impede alternative visions of a future food system. Empirically, the article examines specifically how behavioural-economic approaches imagine transitions to a more sustainable food system. By using the “COOP Supermarket of the Future” as a case study, the following analysis will illustrate how private actors are increasingly involved in steering consumer choice towards socially desirable actions. The analysis suggests that the design of choice environments may under specific circumstances increase the susceptibility of individuals to the influence of corporate preferences and simultaneously decrease the prospects for democratic legitimation and decision-making. The article therefore critically assesses whether reforming the food system by altering consumers’ choice-sets and the attribution of personal responsibility, may in fact point towards implicit anti-democratic tenets underlying the ‘will to nudge’ citizens.

Keywords:  behaviour change; food choice; food democracy; nudging; responsibilisation; sustainable consumption

Published:   28 October 2019


DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v7i4.2216


© Tobias Gumbert. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.