The Return of Old-Fashioned Paternalism

Will limiting our choices save us from ourselves?

One of the hot new ideas in the academy is "libertarian paternalism." Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, authors of the book Nudge, say the goal is "enlisting the science of choice to make life easier for people" and "gently nudging them in directions that will make their lives better." An example: letting companies enroll workers in 401(k) plans unless they object.

But there's an older and more prevalent notion about how to get people to do things that will make their lives better. You might call it coercive paternalism, and it's thriving.

The most prominent examples are in California, which was once synonymous with freedom. City officials in San Francisco and Los Angeles intend to ensure that individuals are free to do what they want, if what they want is good for them.

San Francisco, like New York and Seattle, has decreed that chain restaurants must put nutrition information on menus. This policy, a specimen of libertarian paternalism, rests on the unproven assumption that, in the Information Age, people get fat for lack of knowledge rather than lack of willpower. No one seems to have noticed that our forebears, who didn't have access to nutrition data, generally managed to avoid obesity.

But San Francisco recently came up with another gambit in the name of public health. It's the first city in the nation to outlaw the sale of cigarettes in pharmacies.

What is this supposed to accomplish? Trying to reduce smoking by banning pharmacy sales is like trying to discourage driving by banning Chevys. Tobacco addicts have plenty of other places to get their fix.

At least they do for now. Mitch Katz, director of the Department of Public Health, insists that San Francisco "isn't a nanny state." But he leaves no doubt about his grand ambition: "I am not in favor of anybody smoking or anybody selling tobacco."

Until he brings about complete prohibition, the ban will have perverse consequences. The most obvious is to deprive one type of retail establishment of revenue and divert the dollars to other businesses. Marginal neighborhoods will become less attractive sites for pharmacies but more appealing to liquor stores, which is a novel approach to urban renewal.

In Los Angeles, driving out certain businesses is not a potential side effect—it's a conscious policy. The city council recently prohibited the opening of fast-food outlets in the poor, 32-square-mile area known as South Los Angeles. If you're a global corporation selling inexpensive meals to go, Los Angeles has a message for you: Invest anywhere but here. Apparently a vacant lot is better than a Burger King.

Councilwoman Jan Perry believes the measure will assure the locals "greater food options." The Los Angeles Times reports she "said the initiative would give the city time to craft measures to lure sit-down restaurants serving healthier food to a part of the city that desperately wants more of them."

Of course, it could do that without punishing outlets that don't need luring. But if vegetarian and seafood restaurants didn't see the area as profitable before, this law won't change their calculations. It takes an Orwellian mindset to imagine that shutting out McDonald's and KFC will expand, not diminish, the range of dining options in South Los Angeles.

All it will accomplish, as several fast-food workers told the city council, is to deprive residents of jobs in the forbidden outlets. Does anyone think unemployment will improve their diet? Or that a community with fewer jobs will be a more inviting place for preferred restaurants?

Municipal lawmakers blame the chains for obesity, as though these restaurants abduct locals and force them to eat salty, fatty fare. In reality, people in South Los Angeles patronize these places because they like tasty meals at a low price, and because they put less importance on staying slim and living till age 90 than some people think they should.

Libertarian paternalists may think they know better than you how you should live, but generally they limit themselves to promoting informed choices. Coercive paternalists have a simpler approach: telling us what to do.

The advocates say they are not trying to create a nanny state, and they're right. To call these nanny state measures grossly overstates the intrusiveness of nannies.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    Yup. The Nazi's are winning....again. Your body belongs to the Furher..

  • Guy Montag||

    And so many laughed at Jonah Goldberg's latest book title. Well just try laughing in your tofu without a smoke!

  • joes law meets Godwins||

    And the apostrophe belong's to the possessive.

  • ||

    FTFA: "No one seems to have noticed that our forebears, who didn't have access to nutrition data, generally managed to avoid obesity."

    Devil's Advocate: except our forebears, whether we look at paleolithic humans or the more recent generation to which my grandparents belong or somewhere inbetween, were somewhat limited in their choices. Physical labor was required in order to put food on the table, and the food was generally not the over-refined and over-fatted variety that had become ubiquitous by the last half of the 20th century.

    I'm not suckered into believing that banning fast food is going to mean a sudden, mass conversion to eating veggies on the part of poor people. I work with lots and lots of kids who wonder at the fact that I eats fruits and veggies - more than a few have admitted that they have never eaten a fresh vegetable or piece of fruit. They don't like it! So they won't eat it. There is not enough social/cultural influence present to make it happen.

    Good point, Steve, about some people being more or less punished - or rather, deprived of what they desire - for not having the same mindset about living to 90 and being thin as those in public office think they should. Toe the line we draw for you, or else!

  • sock-puppet law||

    A comment on an unreferenced post will always be preceded by an unrelated intervening post.

  • spl||

    QED

  • ||

    I can't remember - is invoking Godwin and joe at the same time a reason to drink?

    'cause it's too early...

  • anarch||

    Physical labor was required in order to put food on the table

    As well as in order to travel locally, perform household tasks, and violently settle disputes.

  • Guy Montag||

    If the oldentimes folks were so fit why are the chicks in their paintings so fat?

  • Episiarch||

    I really, really detest the use of the phrase "libertarian paternalism". It is just plain wrong. Since the use of force is involved (you may not be forcing people to eat healthy, but you are forcing restaurants to display certain information), it is not libertarian.

    This is just another example of statist shitheads trying to make use of the now slightly more noticed and liked libertarian brand.

  • ||

    Because almost everyone was a chubby chaser back then.

  • ||

    Very soon, probably sooner then we want, we'll be seeing headlines of innocent people dying during SWAT raids into homes suspected of having a carton of illegal Camel cigarettes.

  • ||

    Epi, I had a similar reaction. In my mind, (l)ibertarianism does not involve force on people's decisions or on business practices. I wondered at the use of the term "libertarian paternalism" myself.

    A few days ago my browser's homepage had a run-down of the "healthy" grades of popular restaurants. McDonalds and Chik-fil-A scored respectable A-minuses while chains like TGI Fridays, Applebees, etc. scored Ds and Fs. I was not particularly surprised - when you consider that even a "healthy" salad at Chilis can be over 800 calories and contain 30 grams of fat, and the fact that portion sizes are enough to feed me for 2 or 3 meals, chain restaurants like Chilis, Fridays, etc. are worse for you than having a 250 calorie McDonald's hamburger with apple slices and a diet coke or 1% milk.

    Most people may not make the choice to go hamburger and apples over quarter pounder and fries, but the fact remains that lower-calorie options of a reasonable portion size abound at fast-food joints, and are not to be found at larger sit-down chains. Try ordering something off the kid's menu at Fridays - a waitress laughed and asked for ID, she said if I was under 12 years old I could have it, otherwise I had to stick to the big-kids menu. Seriously.

  • ||

    Check out the big brain on Brad!

    HFCS!

    DEMAND KURV!

    It's for the children!

  • ||

    Most people may not make the choice to go hamburger and apples over quarter pounder and fries, but the fact remains that lower-calorie options of a reasonable portion size abound at fast-food joints, and are not to be found at larger sit-down chains.

    I'm not certain that healty food is unavailable at the sit down chains, bit I certainly agree that fast food outlates do offer healthy fare (White Castle excepted).

    The market drove them to. If one teenager in the car says, I want a salad, the whole carload buys their fast food at the burger joint that offers salads.

  • Episiarch||

    a waitress laughed and asked for ID, she said if I was under 12 years old I could have it, otherwise I had to stick to the big-kids menu. Seriously.

    Did you tell her that her tip was going to be kid's menu sized?

    You can order something relatively healthy just about anywhere, you just have to order something that you know what's in it. For instance, order a steak; you know that there's nothing in it but beef. If you order some crazy pasta dish there may be tons of cheese, oil, etc. in it and you just don't know.

    Regardless, while it's a positive sign that people are trying to co-opt "libertarian" (because it must be gaining a positive connotation), we really need to do what we can to ridicule and shoot down shit like "libertarian paternalism". If we don't, the positive gains the brand have made will be quickly erased.

  • ||

    It seems to me that if in fact that part of the city "desperately wants more of them" (sit-down "healthy" restaurants) said demand would have already been filled, absent government intervention to stop it. If the free market California socialists so despise isn't meeting this need, then I conclude either (1) the extra cost of sit-down service makes it unaffordable to its likely customers, or (2) said socialists were engaged in projection of their own personal desires aka lying when they said that.

  • ||

    I am still getting a lot of cognitive dissonance from the phrase "libertarian paternalism." It sounds like ubiquitous solipsism or something like that.

  • ||

    I hereby nominate "libertarian paternalism" for oxymoron of the week.

  • Guy Montag||

    Is libertarian paternalism like liberal standoffishness?

  • KipEsquire||

    I'm no fan of Nudge, but I'm pretty sure Sunstein & Thaler would concur that the coercive, rights-infringing fast food regulations in SF and LA are most definitely NOT what they would classify as "libertarian paternalism."

    Forcing someone to do something they don't want to do, or telling someone what they can't do with their own private property, is NEVER "libertarianism." Full stop, end of discussion, thanks for playing and we have some lovely parting gifts for you.

  • ||

    Libertarian paternalism is most assuredly not an oxymoron. I'll give you an example: Idi Amin was a libertarian paternalist. He was free to do anything he wanted, but his "children" were under rather strict constraints. It's similar to Zod's political philosophy. Or to that of a cop shooting some innocent girl on a no-knock "drug" raid.

  • anarch||

    troy - unfortunately, "ubiquitous solipsism" is exactly how commutarians-of-violence-and-the-threat-of-violence would characterize the ideal of libertarianism.

  • anarch||

    Pro L, what does the modifier "libertarian" add to paternalism as you describe it? What higher law do unlibertarian paternalists obey?

  • Episiarch||

    It's similar to Zod's political philosophy.

    Kneel before my libertarian paternalism!

  • NP||

    Chapman should've more clearly distinguished between libertarian and coercive paternalism. Just a look at this thread shows why.

  • ||

    anarch,

    God. Unlibertarian paternalists are theocrats, acting in proxy for the Almighty.

  • ||

    At the risk of being attacked as ideologically impure, I will note that you are missing the point about Sunstein and "libertarian paternalism". It is a straw man argument to say that "[the calorie dislosure on menus] policy, a specimen of libertarian paternalism, rests on the unproven assumption that, in the Information Age, people get fat for lack of knowledge rather than lack of willpower." The point isn't that I don't know that a Big Mac has a lot of calories, the point is that if I am confronted with that fact when I am about to order the Big Mac, I may make a different choice. Seeing that calorie number as I look at the marble point cake at Starbucks has the effect of bucking up my willpower. This is called "availability bias" and is pretty well established by cognitive psychologists. We can all go off in a corner with our Ayn Rand paperbacks and grumble that anyone with such a weak will deserves obesity, but unless you think (as many here no doubt do) that government shouldn't do anything about public health issues, this is an effective, minimally intrusive measure that doesn't cross the line of taking away my right to that 400-calorie frappuchino. Libertarian paternalism is our best chance to provide a politically viable alternative to the prohibitionists and keep the right to make choices on the agenda. (Of course, having a concern about political viability would get me thrown out of the LP for ideological impurity as well....)

  • anarch||

    Pro L, that's the only explanation I'd imagined, but then I thought how frequently [people on this blog observe that] God's voice is credited with the authority for what some men find convenient (eg various prophets' polygamy), so that difference among paternalisms would appear to be only cosmetic.

  • ||

    Libertarian paternalists may think they know better than you how you should live, but generally they limit themselves to promoting informed choices.

    As far as I can tell, this "'libertarian' paternalism" which some people find so fascinating is a new name for an old phenomenon: social engineering via tinkering with the tax code. "We'll just capture (or make apparent) the true costs of some disfavored action, so people will see the error of their ways."

  • ||

    Ayn Rand once said:

    " The difference between a welfare state and a
    totalitarian state is merely a matter of time."
    A true prophecy.

  • ||

    The point isn't that I don't know that a Big Mac has a lot of calories, the point is that if I am confronted with that fact when I am about to order the Big Mac, I may make a different choice.

    Maybe the ticket counter at the local cineplex should have a sign reminding Nosrtamo of how many calories he would burn if he went for a walk instead of sitting on his ass watching some lame Hollywod crap. That way Nostramo would be reminded that exercise is more beneficial than sedentary amusement. Of course standards of how large the sign is, (a display as large as the movie title?) needs to be written and enforced. This will be almost free to the cineplex and provide obvious benefits to society.

  • New World Dan||

    But if vegetarian and seafood restaurants didn't see the area as profitable before, this law won't change their calculations.

    Actually, it will. It's classic protectionism. Less competition means more customers. Even still, the lardasses will go to the sit-down resturaunt and order their shrip scampi-style or covered in alfredo sauce.

    But I can be a little soft on this "libartarian paternalism" for a number of reasons. It follows quite simply: a lot of people want government to take care of them. Essentially, they want me to pay for their health care, retirement, and all kinds of other things they can't afford. The result is that those of us paying the taxes start to look for ways to minimize our outlays. Combine this with busybodys who think they know better than you do how to live your life and it all combines together. So I start to look for some of the less intrusive ways to meet some of these common goals. For example, maybe some tax credits for nutitional information on the menu or for a somke free bar. I prefer bribery to the heavy hand. But this is a very slippery slope and the average regulator probably makes me look outright lasiez faire.

  • GG||

    Until he brings about complete prohibition, the ban will have perverse consequences.

    Speaking of perverse consequences:

    Woman Thrown on Live Commuter Rail After Telling Kids to Stop Smoking

    Who's smoking now, lady?

  • PR||

    damn GG. That poor woman. A ban on smoking bans would've prevented this. If it saves just one life...

  • ||

    How is liberal/progressive policy-making interpreted as "libertarian" paternalism? California is not exactly a hotbed of libertarianism. Government interference in the sale of legal products down to precluding where such businesses can locate, is Progressive politics at its worst. Nothing libertarian about it, as far as I can see. So why the aspersion on us?

  • anarch||

    So why the aspersion on us?

    = Why throw the lady on the third rail?

  • Guy Montag||

    = Why throw the lady on the third rail?

    Because a bus was not passing by?

  • ||

    Woman Thrown on Live Commuter Rail After Telling Kids to Stop Smoking

    A South Eastern spokesman said: "We are appalled by this incident and hope the perpetrators are quickly identified."



    Why, so you can apply your tough british justice.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/7041141.stm

    Or maybe it's only guys who rape ten-year-olds that get two-year sentences.

    What do you suppose they give for attempted murder?

  • ||

    Government interference in the sale of legal products down to precluding where such businesses can locate, is Progressive politics at its worst. Nothing libertarian about it, as far as I can see.



    Many progressives see themselves as libertarian. Seriously. They want "freedom for me, not for thee". It's not just freedom from coercion, it's freedom from unpleasant things like smokers and fat people. They even see their socialist economic worldview as libertarian, because they perceive money as inherently coercive.

  • anarch||

    I'm a libertarian and a Christian, and I see money as inherently coercive, because our incarnation into material conditions is inherently coercive. Deal.

  • ||

    You have a funny definition of "coercive" then. Please look it up. It is to compel by force or threat of force. Money does not force or threaten. Neither is our material existance coercive. Semantic redefinitions of the English language does not aid in our fight for liberty.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    There is no connection to libertarianism if "libertarian paternalism" involves creating laws that restrict some in order to "nudge" others.

    Regarding the third rail: FUCKIN STREET JUSTICE! I'm saving that one and emailing it to a few people.

  • ||

    The point isn't that I don't know that a Big Mac has a lot of calories, the point is that if I am confronted with that fact when I am about to order the Big Mac, I may make a different choice.

    Sure, whatever. The libertarian point is that, regardless, its not the state's role to force the restaurant to post calorie counts.

  • ||

    These people are getting free choice confused with restricted choice, which isn't choice at all. If you can naturally choose between a steak and a salad and a hamburger and a fish fillet, that's free choice. If someone coercively restricts your choices to salad or fish "becuase they care about you," then it's just paternalism with a happy face. They are still forcing you to NOT choose the hamburger or steak. Libertarianism has nothing to do with it because if your choices are already made for you, then they ain't free.

    The cynical side of me thinks that this is a naked attempt by the owners of other fast food joints to restrict new competition thru the city council, and then Orwellian-twisted to appear as just the opposite.

  • ||

    libertarian paternalism

    Yup, right up there with "orgasmless sex".

    And I will soon (in 2 weeks) descend into my annual pilgrimmage amongst the tofu-eating freaks who vacate SF & LA at the end of every August. We happy few, we heathens with our coolers full of bacon who know the true meaning of St. Crispin's Day.

  • ||

    How nice to live in a kinder, gentler police state, one in which most of the inmates don't even realize they're living in one.

  • Kenneth P. Turvey||

    I'm a vegetarian libertarian and I resent that remark. :-)

    Of course since I'm a libertarian it means I won't force you to stop eating meat, even though I think it might be immoral in many ways. It just isn't bad enough to force people not to do it.

  • Leo Augustus ||

    Mad Biker,
    According to the precepts of libertarian paternalism it is indeed too early to drink which is why the liquor store isn't open yet.

  • ||

    "The point isn't that I don't know that a Big Mac has a lot of calories, the point is that if I am confronted with that fact when I am about to order the Big Mac, I may make a different choice.

    Sure, whatever. The libertarian point is that, regardless, its not the state's role to force the restaurant to post calorie counts."

    Your right, but it's not necessarily the libertarian view that nutrition facts shouldn't be posted. The free market way to ensure nutritional data is posted would be to have the liberal media scare everyone into believing that eating something without knowing caloric content is inherently bad. This is why most fast food joints carry salad or fruit on their menu now.

    The underlying point is that... if paternalists want to control the masses, they have the media and can be plenty coercive without forcing regulations on business.

  • bob||

    very very sad, more laws against free will, and some say God has a hand in it.. LMAO

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement