I’m pretty sure that at one point NPM might not have required sudo privileges to do things but by default it now seems that people are sudo installing all over the place. It’s the equivalent of just clicking “yes” on every Windows permission dialog.
There is no particularly good reason to use sudo with a package manager. Virtualenv is tres local by default and even gem (via rbenv and rvm) can now run happily in the user space. Even if you want to share package downloads to minimise network calls then you still don’t need to install everything globally as root.
NPM is special in almost every sense of the word and it’s author recommends that you switch permissions on /usr/local to be owned by your login user. That seems kind of crazy and the kind of thing that probably would only work out for OSX users.
In fact if you are willing to build your own NodeJS it really isn’t hard to bet Node and NPM working locally and still retaining all the advantages of the “global” NPM install. Just use the standard build option of –prefix to set Node to use your home directory and just add $HOME/bin to your PATH in .bashrc or the equivalent.
Then you should be able to use npm without ever having to sudo.
My view though is that you shouldn’t have to force everything into the user space just to make sure a package manager doesn’t need sudo privileges. It would be better for everyone if NPM used a directory in home for each user since it seems to be aimed at single-user installs anyway there is not a massive saving by having packages installed in /usr/local. For the few use-cases where that would be useful then it should be an override option.