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Even if I were to concede that point, there are plenty of programs that might be called soft or libertarian paternalism and that yield negative outcomes.
For example, federal farm subsidies quietly influence the choices made by farmers and consumers and lead many in both groups to believe they’re better off—a key precept of libertarian paternalism.
Subsidies influence farmers to produce some foods (like corn, soy, dairy, and sugar) to the exclusion of other foods (like arugula, bok choy, and yams). It’s no surprise that the former foods are the ones most farmers grow, and that they're much more frequent choices among eaters.
The noodgy allure of farm subsidies is that farmers get money and certainty, while consumers get abundant and cheaper food at the grocery.
Another example of libertarian paternalism around food is menu labeling. Its proponents refer to laws mandating calorie counts on fast food and other restaurant menus as a gentle nudge that requires businesses to provide us with information the government thinks we need but still allows us to make our own choices. The hope by government is that we’ll choose items with fewer calories and be better off for exercising that choice. But studies have shown mandatory restaurant menu labeling does not work in practice. Worse, a recent study showed mandated menu labeling can actually cause consumers to choose foods with more calories.
So both farm subsidies and mandatory menu labeling present firm empirical evidence that libertarian paternalism doesn’t work, right?
You might think so. But Sunstein’s Nudge writing partner, Richard Thaler, would likely argue that these failures simply call for more testing on the part of government.
“No one knows the answers to every problem, and not every idea works, so it is vital to test,” Thaler said earlier this month.
Of course. Who else but a cadre of bureaucrats who’ve never met you could possibly through trial and error determine what’s best for you to eat?
“The cafeteria owners may be imperfect decisionmakers,” writes The Atlantic’s Friedersdorf, “but they still possess more information than faraway government rulemakers—and aren't lobbied ruthlessly to make certain rules.”
He’s right. And consumers possess even more information about their own personal preferences than do the cafeteria owners.
Thomas Jefferson warned more than 225 years ago that we should never allow bureaucratic “inquisitors”—“Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons”—to dictate our food choices. Fallible bureaucrats were then, and remain now, ineffective as our decisionmakers. As Jefferson makes clear, their very basis also goes against the American ideals of individual rights and limited government.
Given the choice, we’d do best to choose Jefferson over Brooks and Sunstein. We must resist the clucky charms of libertarian paternalism. Cheerio.