Bryan Caplan  

The Mystery of Libertarian Paternalism

Unable to Simplify... The SAT Puzzle...
My reaction to Sunstein and Thaler's "libertarian paternalism" has always been: It would be a massive improvement over the pervasive non-libertarian paternalism of the status quo.  Imagine a world where you could opt out of Social Security by mailing in an extra form, hire an unlicensed doctor after signing a waiver, or legally buy cocaine if you sit through one of the DEA's educational videos.  We wouldn't be in Libertopia, but we'd be 95% of the way there.

What I can't figure out: Why do Sunstein and Thaler use their meme to make extra paternalism a little less objectionable, instead of making existing paternalism a lot less objectionable?  They write as if dogmatic libertarians have a stranglehold over public policy, and keep vetoing their modest efforts to nudge us towards better diets.  But in the real world - if not the blogosphere - old-fashioned coercive paternalists outnumber dogmatic libertarians by at least 10:1. Shouldn't Sunstein and Thaler occasionally attack them for their heavy-handed authoritarianism?  A 10:1 attack ratio seems fair, but I'd gladly settle for 50/50.

Update: I overlooked some examples where Sunstein and Thaler do what I ask.  My bad.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
John Thacker writes:

Nice words Bryan, but it would have been a lot shorter to just say "What Arnold said." :)

Blackadder writes:

Bryan, no offense, but the book Nudge *does* contain the very things you're asking for. On education, medical malpractice, safety laws, and marriage, Sunstein and Thaler advocate a more libertarian policy than the status quo. Not only that, but a lot of the stuff in Nudge doesn't have to do with government at all, but is about stuff like how you can lose weight, make wiser investments, etc.

liberty writes:

My guess is that it is easier to find widespread popular support for your theory if you avoid making calls for eliminating popular government programs.

Sunstein and Thaler were more interested in selling books and retaining high positions in the intellectual spotlight than they were in taking their theories to their logical conclusions.

Either that or they too sentimentally prefer having the programs, even though they could be productively replaced with "libertarian paternalist" solutions.

mulp writes:

Given Social Security is much more than old age income assistance, but includes such things as unemployment and Federal assistance to the, from day one, State welfare systems, what does it mean to "opt out of Social Security"?

If you end up, possibly old, but maybe young, unable to earn the means to food and shelter, does that mean you get to
- live in the park, pan handling,
- break into houses to sleep and eat,
- expect society to support you,
- starve and die from exposure in my doorway,
- or commit suicide?

I find it interesting the politics of the war on drugs and lifetime imprisonment are largely coincident with the opposition to aiding the poor, young, and disabled. Reagan didn't argue the government should legalize drugs, but instead called for a metaphorical authoritarian military oppression on tens of millions of citizens.

Why didn't libertarians see Reagan as the greater evil, given Reagan's clear cry for more government intervention in the lives of both Americans by creating a class of people to round up and place in concentration camps, as well as engaging in increased military imperialism around the world? Carter was clearly not in favor of use of force, and far more interested in less government control of both citizens of the US and the world. Nixon is a problem for libertarians, being a leftist on social policy and more libertarian free trade open borders, non-interventionist, and imperialist on foreign policy.

After all, if you make your living all your life speculating, earning millions in your worst years, you will pay nothing to Social Security, but as you party with your fellow traders and get busted with crack, Reagan's policies send you to prison for decades.

On the other hand, if you work construction for 20 years paying FICA and get insured on the job and end up disabled for years, in pain, Carter's polices would favor the FDR socialist workers comp plus Social Security disability and dependent income while recognizing your dependency on opiates was a medical condition, and not a drug addict's moral failing of choosing to be injured on the job and thus failing to support his family and becoming a leech on society.

Not to mention Reagan ending his life the socialist he began it, supporting a socialist war on dementia instead of the libertarian view that those with dementia deserve it from their life choices.

david writes:

I'd always just assumed that libertarian paternalism, like "positive" rights, behavioural economics and other similar stuff, was just another in the long line of semi-stealth arguments for justifying government and the expansion of government.

Kurbla writes:

Bryan: Imagine a world where you could opt out of Social Security by mailing in an extra form, hire an unlicensed doctor after signing a waiver, or legally buy cocaine if you sit through one of the DEA's educational videos. We wouldn't be in Libertopia, but we'd be 95% of the way there.

You cannot have that right and property rights in the same time. If you have property rights, then landlord has the right to define rules for opting out of Social Security for everyone living on his land. Remember Rothbard's theatre. In that case, your only way for opting out is moving out - and you have exactly that right just now.

Daniel Klein writes:

Excellent post.

You just scooped what I plan to make my main point on a "Libertarian Paternalism" session at the APEE conference. I will mention your post.

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