Arnold Kling  

My Question for Nudgers

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Richard Thaler writes,


we advocate policies that maintain people's freedom to choose at as low a cost as possible.

My question is this: why is it that soft paternalism is always applied to areas where the nudgers want more government involvement? Why is it never applied to instances in which government is involved in ways that go beyond what nudging theory would suggest? My guess is that if one thought about the FDA or Medicare or housing subsidies from a "nudge" perspective, the result would be government policy that is much less intrusive than what we have now. Yet we never hear about such implications of soft paternalism.

When soft paternalism is used to denounce irrational state policy, I will take it as friendly to libertarians. As long as it is used only to suggest more arenas for government interference, I will view it as just another rationale for ruling-class hegemony.

[UPDATE: Scott Sumner shares my concern, as does Bryan. In libertarian paternalism, the emphasis is on Paternalism with a capital P. Imagine instead that we were talking about paternalistic Libertarianism, in which case we would be trying to come up with ways to nudge the ruling class toward giving up power.]


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Steve Horwitz writes:

Arnold,

It's exactly like comparable worth. Funny how comparable worth arguments are *always* used to argue for raising the wages of the supposedly underpaid but never for lowering those of the supposedly overpaid. If the distribution were more 50/50, I might have one slim reason to consider CW arguments as anything more than dressed up minimum wage laws.

Your second paragraph has it just right.

David R. Henderson writes:

Good point, Arnold.

The good news is that they do advocate moving in a less oppressive direction. In my review of the book, Nudge, in Regulation, I wrote:

I am happy to say that many of the policies they advocate in Nudge would reduce government oppression. In the areas of motorcycle helmet laws, school choice, medical malpractice, and marriage, their proposals would retain some government intervention, while
moving us in a more libertarian direction.

The link is:
http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv31n2/v31n2-inreview.pdf#page=6

Blackadder writes:

My question is this: why is it that soft paternalism is always applied to areas where the nudgers want more government involvement?

It's not. The book Nudge, for example, has plenty of examples which either (1) argue for a more hands off approach to government than the status quo, or (2) don't involve government at all.

Eric H writes:

Thaler:

"[We] call a policy paternalistic 'if it tries to influence choices in a way that makes choosers better off, as judged by themselves.'"

I am confused by his use of the pronouns "we" and "themselves." They--Thaler and Sunstein--use others' criteria to identify policy? How is this supposed to work? Do the choosers express to Thaler and Sunstein their preferences for retirement plans and dessert options for the cafeteria line before Thaler and Sunstein make their recommendations to the choosers' bosses?

If that's the case, then Thaler and Sunstein aren't being paternalistic; they are merely taking a poll. They are simply finding out what choosers want and letting them have it. They are establishing themselves as proxies for the market, which is really no different from what human resource directors do in companies everywhere.


Michael Sterling writes:

One reason why nudgers might not make such claims is that nudges don't provide good arguments against too much involvement. However, one might (as I do) believe that there can be evidence in support of certain nudges, as well as evidence that in other places there should be much less government involvement. Why does that evidence need to come from the body of research used to defend nudges?

Also, the use of nudges in the sense we're talking about here isn't reserved for government programs. A private school would do well to take into consideration the research on how the display of lunch food affects choices, assuming that offering lunch isn't some violation of libertarian principles. One might even use it in planning how you serve food to your family. The research and use of nudges applies to any area where framing predictably affects people's decisions, and there is no way to frame things 'neutrally.'

John Alcorn writes:

Insightful criticisms of the new paternalism are found in a gem by Robert Sugden, "Why Incoherent Preferences Do Not Justify Paternalism", Constitutional Political Economy (2008) 19: 226-248.

Just another opiner writes:

"As long as it is used only to suggest more arenas for government interference, I will view it as just another rationale for ruling-class hegemony."

So I'm curious, you view the government as the ruling class? Or as controlled by the ruling class? And said ruling class sees more govt involvement as supporting their hegemony?

Seems to me there are far more likely suspects.

Kenneth writes:

Did you read the book? It makes many arguments exactly like the ones you wish it made. This makes me wonder about your comments on other books and articles.

John writes:

In other words: “Thaler made some very good points that I can’t really respond to. But I’m a Libertarian, so there.”

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