Nearly a decade ago, the humor publication McSweeney’s pitted two popular breakfast cereals against one another in a brilliant sendup of an archetypal David Brooks column. Brooks, in case you didn’t know, is a New York Times columnist. I don’t read his work regularly, but it’s often taken to task in these here (and here and here) pages.
According to the McSweeney’s parody, members of the American electorate belonged to one of two camps—the “Lucky Charmers” and the “Cheerioians.” And Brooks, who the spoof claims has “a pathological need to seem reasonable,” briefly floats a choice between the two before advocating in favor of the oaty choice readers knew he’d find to be the more reasonable one.
Nine years later, Brooks himself has seemingly circled back to the McSweeney’s parody with a formulaic column in support of so-called libertarian paternalism.
To bolster his assumptions, Brooks focuses in part on food choice architecture.
Libertarian paternalism around food posits that government shouldn’t ban foods but should instead make the choices wise government employees want you to make easier for you to exercise and the choices those same bureaucrats think are less desirable more difficult for you to make.
Government’s job here, Brooks argues, is to “gently bias the context” in which we make choices.
“It’s hard to feel that a cafeteria is insulting my liberty if it puts the healthy fruit in a prominent place and the unhealthy junk food in some faraway corner,” he writes, invoking a scenario from page 1 of Cass Sunstein’s influential 2008 book in support of libertarian paternalism, Nudge. “Or, most notoriously, government could make it harder for you to buy big, sugary sodas.”
Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic gets to the heart of the matter in a good rejoinder to Brooks on the cafeteria issue.
“So long as every cafeteria is free, under the law, to organize its food as it sees fit, I am all for inculcating a norm whereby the healthy stuff is prominently displayed and accessible,” he writes. “But do I want the federal government regulating food placement in every American cafeteria?”
No. And as long as it’s not government that’s inculcating that norm, I’m all in with Friedersdorf.
Another good reply to Brooks might be one made by Sunstein himself, who writes in a forthcoming Yale Law Review article (an article Brooks cites in his column) that “the Joyless Cafeteria, with the tastiest foods relatively hidden,” is an “objectionable” solution.
Still another opponent of the argument Brooks advances might be… New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote in 2011 that nanny state paternalism has “helped undermine personal responsibility and…. will have to be cut back[.]”
“I’d say the anti-paternalists win the debate in theory but the libertarian paternalists win it empirically,” Brooks wrote in his column last week.
But does the empirical evidence Brooks presents support his claim? The Obama administration sure thinks so, Brooks and others note. And Brooks does cite a few examples in which he says the “concrete benefits of these programs… are empirically verifiable.”