'Libertarian Paternalism': Guiding Without Coercion
The Institute of Ideas - Battle of Ideas 2009
The question of whether it is legitimate for governments to coerce people for their own good has long been an important one in politics. Ever since the birth of liberal thought, some critics have worried that, freed from the constraints of authority or tradition, people will make the "wrong choices."From censorship of "dangerous" books and ideas to prohibition of alcohol and restrictions on smoking, there is a long tradition of authoritarian intervention to save people from themselves. Thaler and Sunstein's influential 2008 book, Nudge, sparked an ongoing debate about a new brand of "libertarian paternalism." Rather than actually coercing people, the authors argue that by giving thought to "choice architecture," governments can nudge people into making better decisions for themselves, society and the environment.From setting defaults to encourage employees to pay into pension funds, to using psychological tricks to encourage recycling, the authors suggest various ways of encouraging desired behavior without compromising autonomy.Is it childish to object to such "nudges," as long the final decision rests with us, or do they represent a patronizing affront to our individual autonomy? Is this really libertarian, or just a more subtle form of the "nanny state," as confident as ever that the experts knows best? Who decides what kind of behavior is desirable or otherwise?Shouldn't such questions be subject to open debate rather than handed over to geeky "choice architects" who treat the public as lab rats? Is "nudging" a means of governing without winning any arguments? Or should we be happy to go with the flow in such trivial matters?