Soft Paternalism Hardens Quickly


A great essay from economist and Fringe writer Glen Whitman kicks off a debate over at Cato Unbound on the dangers of "libertarian paternalism."

To the casual reader, the new paternalism might seem to have little to do with government at all. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler's Nudge and Daniel Ariely's Predictably Irrational, for instance, often read more like advice manuals than policy manifestos.

But if you dig deeper, you'll find a wide-ranging policy agenda at work. In seminal journal articles by Sunstein & Thaler, Camerer et al., O'Donoghue and Rabin, and others, you'll find a panoply of policy proposals from mild to downright intrusive. The story begins with the seemingly innocuous proposal to enroll all employees in savings plans automatically (with the ability to opt out). Then it progresses to new default rules in contracts, such as a presumption of "for cause" rather than "at will" employment, again with an opt-out. And then? Default rules that can be waived only through a cumbersome legal procedure. Then default rules with some options ruled out entirely — such as maximum hours that cannot be waived for less than time-and-a-half pay. Then cooling-off periods for high-cost purchases. Then sin taxes for fatty or sodium-rich foods. Then outright bans on ingredients like trans fats.

Not every new paternalist supports every one of these policies, and they don't advocate them all with the same confidence. But they're all on the list, and all justified by an appeal to behavioral economics.

Small case study: Sodas in schools. Kids are fat. Bans loom. Soda companies—which generally prefer to fight to the death—collaborate to remove full-sugar sodas entirely from schools. Is this what a victory for non-coercive nudging looks like?

Reason Contributor Will Wilkinson nudges regulatory czar Cass Sunstein a new one in our pages here.

NEXT: Out-of-Control Bullet Train Destroys Hundreds of Homes, Businesses

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  1. If it involves some form of government coercion, there is nothing libertarian about it.

    1. That’s what I thought.

      These people are just making shit up.

      Libertarianism and paternalism are inherently contradictory.

      If it involves some sort of deliberate social engineering, there’s nothing liberatian about it.

      1. Ditto “libertarian socialism”. Utter bullshit.

      2. Same goes for libertarian socialism. Inherently self-contradictory… and utter bullshit.

    2. If it involves some form of government coercion, there is nothing libertarian about it.

      Very stupid.

      1. ?

        “Libertarian paternalism” generally involves some regulation that is intended to persuade someone to “make the right choice”. The regulation part of it makes it not libertarian, because somewhere a choice is being taken away- the choice not to have calories displayed on the menu, the choice not to have a mandatory savings system available, whatever. The end consumer is not the only place where liberty matters.

    3. It’s completely opposite in philosophy. Libertarians believe that people are mostly capable of running their own lives, and to try to interfere with that is both an act of extreme hubris and a violation of their dignity, autonomy, and the concept that persons are equal under the law.

      Paternalists think that most people are inferior, simple-minded, and need to be controlled by enlightened philosopher kings such as themselves to be safe, fulfilled, and happy.

  2. whats libertarian about the proposals?

    1. The “libertarian” part is the statists attempting to make “libertarian” a meaningless word (or give it a new meaning), just like they did with “liberal”. If you can’t describe the concept, it has a lot less power. I think that was a technique learned from the use of doublespeak in 1984.

    2. The idea is essentially that the default rule changes- the most common example is in a savings scenario: default option for retirement savings is saving nothing, but the “libertarian paternalists” want to change that default option to saving. Then the person who doesn’t want to save must go through the hassle of opting out. It’s supposedly libertarian because you still have a choice- of course, exercising your right to choose something other than what the government has chosen for you will be a royal pain in the ass.

      1. Right. They start off with some sort of argument saying that changing the default to opt out is no more onerous than changing the default to opt in, so libertarians have nothing to complain about, but it’s awesome because people ought to save or whatever.

        They inevitably end up in coercion, because their entire starting motivation is that they, the smart people, know what is good for everyone else and that they should rejigger the rules to maximize that result.

  3. The profit margins on beverages like bottled water, Gatorade, etc, are probably much higher than they are on Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Dr.Pepper…so, really as long as Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Dr.Pepper/Snapple can sell those in the place of colas, then they are actually going to make more money than they otherwise would have.

    1. The trade off is not that perfect. The market may shift to items purchased outside of school.

      What about the children? They have to pay more for specialty drinks, and get a shittier selection of choices.

  4. From the chalkboard in the commercial: “America’s beverage companies have removed full-calorie soft drinks from schools”

    The operative term here is “full-calorie.” So they’re stocking the vending machines with diet drinks full of chemical sweeteners? Score one for the health brigades!

    1. Beat me to it, Jake. If it ever turns out that aspartame and all this other ubiquitous stuff “made from natural ingredients” are causative factors in autism or Alzheimer’s — let the lawsuits begin!

    2. As if sugar and corn syrup aren’t “chemicals”.

      1. Fuck off, Chad. Peddle your proto-Luddite horseshit somewhere else.

        1. *facepalm*

          Uhh, LG, my comment was the very opposite of “Luddite”.

          1. I meant you in general, dickweed.

    3. There is not anything wrong with diet soda. ZOMG teh chemicals are teh scary!

      1. leach calcium from your bones. They all suck.

  5. Sadly, it is human nature to be dissatisfied when you someone fails to act the way you want, and to ramp up the pressure. That ramping up easily crosses the line from mere persuasion, to “incentives”, to outright legal mandate/prohibition.

    Really, how anyone can claim that the slippery slope is a fallacy is a mystery to me.

    1. Unfortunately it’s a slippery slope we’re all on. Anyone who gets fed up with trying to persuade someone might turn to violence instead. So…have no desires, no opinions?

    2. Especially when you convince yourself that your preferred way of acting is the more logical, reasonable, and scientific way, and everyone who acts differently is ignorant or suffers from false consciousness. They’re really convinced of their own righteousness. The excellent C.S. Lewis quote applies:

      “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

      1. The parts surrounding the quote include some other choice bits:

        In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They ‘cash in.’ It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science. . . . Let us not be deceived by phrases about ‘Man taking charge of his own destiny.’ All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of others. . . . The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be.

        To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

      2. But… we agree [or not, as appropriate] to trade some freedoms [individually] for benefits [collectively], and thereby increase our REAL freedom [as determined by committee].

        So, I ask you, gentleman, who’s the real tyrant?

  6. We are here to protect you
    Pushing will protect you
    Pushing will protect you from the terrible secret of space

    That is incorrect
    Shoving will protect you
    Shoving will protect you from the terrible secret of space
    Do not trust the shover robot

    Shoving is the answer
    We are here to protect you

    Do not trust the pusher robot
    He is malfunctioning
    We are here to protect you

    We are the space robots

    We are here to protect you

    We are here to protect you from the terrible secret of space

  7. People who have grown up in the cradle to grave welfare state need a daddy and mommy government to mange their lives.

    Of course they do. I hear people al lthe time complaining about the government needs to force them to do things for their own good, because they don’t have the self-discipline to do it for themselves.

    1. Those people are the ones who will tell you that they don’t trust themselves to own a gun. Fucking contemptible.

    2. Wrong, Hazel: those of smart enough to realize how severe our lack of self-discipline is are the few that really don’t need much help.

      1. Because the government is composed of perfectly self-disciplined people who know how and when to correct our faults.

        Oh right, that means you … right? You’ll be the self-disciplined people who know exactly when to correct other people’s lack of discipline right?

        1. And we all know everyone in government is the epitome of self-control and playing by the rules…

        2. You play the straw-man card, Hazel. The government doesn’t need to be perfect – it just needs to be less imperfect. And frankly, that isn’t all that hard sometimes, given how wildly individuals and the markets they create can miss their marks.

          Or do you really believe half of Americans having virtually no retirement savings is rational?

          1. well, it pretty much fails at being less imperfect as well. Governments routinely fail to outperform their private counterparts.

  8. Soft Paternalism Hardens Quickly

    Daddy always told me that was supposed to happen.

  9. Chad, why would you stand up for anyone being self-sufficient, you being a liberal and all?

  10. I always thought the concept of “libertarian paternalism” sounded fishy. Even Sunstein said in an interview once that it was probably a bad choice for a name, since paternalism (rightfully) has a negative ring to it.

  11. I don’t mind the idea of having default choices – it can make many things much easier – but naturally it can be abused just like anything else, in several ways. (When I was in the National Guard I had the option of turning down life insurance coverage, and I DID turn it down. But they kept taking money out of my paycheck anyway, and despite my attempts to fix it they only stopped taking my money once, for a few months, before they resumed.)

    Still, one could have a long argument about whether the default employment contract would be “at will” or “for cause”, but you can bet that any savvy employer would be sure to get it in writing that the employment was “at will”. Just like they do now.

    Such defaults might be more useful in the sphere where some people believe they have a right to inflict their ideological beliefs on others: for example, having a default marriage contract mean one man, one woman, with the provision that there would be no (p)alimony in case of divorce except for cause, would give most people what they want and allow the ideologues to enjoy having the officially sanctioned view, while opening new possibilities for same-sex couples, polygynists, polyandrists, and others.

    On the other hand, a friend of mine in Singapore explained to me that the marriage laws there are so onerous that no Singaporean in his right mind would get married under Singaporean law. No alternatives are given except to get married in another country, if at all. I suppose that would make some people happy.

    On yet another hand, there’s an object lesson in there somewhere: if you make life onerous in one place, the people living there move to other places, or find ways to avoid onerous laws, often negating any positive effects and sometimes making things worse than before. You’d think the folks who are so anxious to control the lives of others would eventually figure this out.

  12. Read the books and decide for yourself. There are some very persuasive ideas presented. Policy need not follow strict ideological lines in order to be effective – there’s such a thing as shades of gray.

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