Libertarian Paternalism: Nudge vs. Push
Cass Sunstein, head of something called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House, wants to improve America through subtle manipulation. A recent NYT accounting:
The office, known in Washington as OIRA, reviews major regulations written by federal agencies (on matters like the environment, the financial system, Medicare and Medicaid and public health and safety). Republicans have seen OIRA as a powerful tool to check the regulatory instincts of some agencies. But Sunstein wants to use OIRA to make regulations more supple, not less robust. Government regulations can operate at the level of philosophy, elaborating how you weigh the interest of the individual against that of society, of the present against the future. Sunstein’s influence at OIRA might help give the government a University of Chicago mind.
In “Nudge,” a popular book that he wrote with the influential behavioral economist Richard Thaler, Sunstein elaborated a philosophy called “libertarian paternalism.” Conservative economists have long stressed that because people are rational, the best way for government to serve the public is to guarantee a fair market and to otherwise get out of the way. But in the real world, Sunstein and Thaler argue, people are subject to all sorts of biases and quirks. They also argue that this human quality, which some would call irrationality, can be predicted and — this is the controversial part — that if the social environment can be changed, people might be nudged into more rational behavior.
Libertarian paternalists would have school cafeterias put the fruit before the fried chicken, because students are more likely to grab the first food they see. They support a change in Illinois law that asks drivers renewing their licenses to choose whether they want to be organ donors. The simple act of having to choose meant that more people signed up. Ideas like these, taking human idiosyncrasies into account, might revive an old technocratic hope: that society could be understood so perfectly that it might be improved. The elaboration of behavioral economics, which seeks to uncover the ways in which people are predictably irrational, “is the most exciting intellectual development of my lifetime,” Sunstein told me.
Maybe so, but the paradox of libertarian paternalism is that it terrifies both libertarians and paternalists. (Its natural audience is professors, who often love it.) Conservatives see a Big Brother strain in Sunstein’s philosophy (Glenn Beck called him “the most dangerous guy out there”), while some liberals worry that behavioral economics is too immature to handle the weight of guiding policy. “Right now we’re in a Keynesian moment,” William Galston, a longtime Democratic Party insider who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me after Obama took office. “We’re not going to nudge the system back. We’ll drag it back.”
Bill Dyer is one of the conservative skeptics.
But you have to understand: by “nudge,” Sunstein means “turning your life into something run the way he and his ilk think it should be run” — nothing less than that.
It is the nanny state. It is the statist impossible utopia that Barack Obama and folks like Sunstein have in their pointy heads as the America they want to build, as they systematically dismantle everything in the America that exists.
“Libertarian paternalism” is an oxymoron. What Sunstein and Obama are doing is just arrogant paternalism, period. Instead of anything remotely resembling real libertarianism, Sunstein’ promoting the notion of government regulation so subtle, so perceptive, so … well, just so damned clever that it won’t really seem like much of a bother to do what Sunstein and Obama and the government want you to do. You’ll think it’s your own idea!
‘Cause they’re smarter than you and me, see? Get it? If you don’t, then just keep clinging to your guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like you or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment. Something. You moron, why do you think you’re even remotely qualified to run your own life? Sheesh.
Bill follows this with a [/sarcasm off] and I’m unsure whether it refers simply to the last paragraph or to his tone in general. Either way, I’m hard pressed to get too exercised about presenting people with choices — which, indeed, seem to actually be choices — in such a manner as to maximize the likelihood of them making the one society hopes they make.
If Sunstein were mandating that Safeway display chicken and tofu prominently while forcing customers to ask the butcher to show them steak, I’d agree that this isn’t libertarian at all. But, if the state is going to serve lunch to children — which is already pretty paternalistic and choice limiting — I’m not sure what’s wrong with putting the healthier choices first in the queue. (Indeed, when I was in school, we took whatever they put on the tray, with our only choices being eat/trade/throw away.)
Similarly, if the state is going to license driving — and I think it should — and going to use the resultant ID card as a means of identifying organ donors — and I don’t really see what the harm is there — then what’s the problem with making it easier for people to choose YES? Now, if the default were YES and it was made a giant hassle to change it to NO, then that would be outside the realm of libertarianism and statist indeed. (Although I think we’ll be there sooner rather than later. I can certainly see us deciding that our right to control our corpses from beyond is outweighed by the urgent need for organs to save lives. But that would be paternalism without a libertarian modifier.)
That said, Bill’s larger point has merit. The changes mentioned here are both subtle modifications to things government already controls and in a direction I support. But, as Charles Austin asked in relation to Heinz changing its ketchup recipe ahead of pressure from government, “Is there anything beyond the purview of the federal government? Anything at all?” It’s not at all clear to me where we draw the line on the things that little-known bureaucrats operating out of almost-completely-unknown offices in the White House (or, actually, the Executive Office Building across the street) can “nudge” us about.