Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Nudge and a Wink

Writing in The Mark, Christy Luo delves into the idea of "libertarian paternalism" as she reviews the book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The article is a very interesting mess (and I mean that, I can't get on board with the argument, but I enjoyed reading the article). Ms. Luo puts forth plausible arguments in support of this hybrid philosophy while adhering to no consistent definition of paternalism, and dancing around the issue of information assymetries and the role of experts in people's decision making processes.

She quotes Thaler, who says, "By 'paternalism,' [sic] we mean caring about people's outcomes. We want to devise policies that will make people better off - choices that they themselves think are better."

The idea is to present people with sufficient information to be able to make optimum choices. There is no disputing the notion that information is required in order for people to be able to make good decisions. As such, I see no problems with things such as safety regulations or food labeling. The libertarian position tends to argue that people should be free to make choices without coercion or fraud. Restricting information or providing misinformation can be considered fraud.

So, yes, the government has a role to play in our lives, and part of that role is to facilitate the flow of information. However, just as we do not want one party to a contractual agreement to be the gatekeeper of information, we should not want the government in that role, either. By defining paternalism as leading people to optimum choices, it means that the government has already made the decision as to what is the optimum choice in a particular situation, and, thus, has decided what information is relevant to the decision making process. Suddenly, I'm finding myself farther and farther away from libertarianism.

Ms. Luo makes the suggestion that a libertarian paternalistic policy might be to place fresh fruit, rather than candy, at eye level at a school cafeteria. Seems quite reasonable, but let us take that to a realm that captures more adults and fewer minors. It would seem that another libertarian paternalistic policy would be to place fruit, not candy, at eye level of grocery stores. It's a subtle trick to lead us to the healthier decision (putting aside whether or not we might enjoy the candy more - the government has already decided that we wouldn't). What happens in less clear-cut cases? What happens when the policy makers only think they have the proper information to make an informed decision for consumers? If the grocery store customer cannot be expected to be a rational actor, why do we expect more of the legislator (who, no doubt, occasionally shops at a grocery store)?

Further, though we may not, technically, be limiting choice (the candy hasn't been outlawed, it's just on a really low shelf), we are, potentially, providing erroneous information to consumers. If we begin instituting the 'eye level shelf' policy, we are taking responsibility away from people. No longer need they worry about the nutritious value of their food, as they always buy products that are placed at eye level. Certainly, the government would never let something unhealthy appear on such a shelf.

(There is a fantastic episode of King of the Hill, Trans-Fascism, in which the town of Arlen outlaws trans fats. Bill is overjoyed. He can eat now anything he wants, because the government is making sure everything is healthy.)

It seems to me that, rather than truly building a new libertarianism, proponents of libertarian paternalism are attempting to fundamentally alter libertarianism to fit 21st century liberal/progressive policies. It is an interesting thought experiment, and one that was done quite well by Julian Sanchez (a libertarian), who writes:
I can pretty easily construct the shortest path (consisting of the fewest significant belief-change “moves”) from my own worldview to one that would count as genuinely conservative or progressive. It’s probably worth stressing that this would not necessarily just be a very libertarian-sounding progressivism or conservatism, since the shortest path might be to push on a tentatively-held stance fairly high up the ladder of abstraction, with dramatic downstream consequences.
Though I haven't read Nudge, I would not be surprised if this is a fair description of the steps to constructing libertarian paternalism.

Ms. Luo also presents us with a quotation from Tony Blair (apparently the British are more in tune with the philosophy of libertarian paternalism... though perhaps they're just more comfortable with the philosophy of noblesse oblige):
“[C]hoice isn’t an end in itself. It is one important mechanism to ensure that citizens can indeed secure good schools and health services in their communities. Choice puts the levers in the hands of parents and patients so that they as citizens and consumers can be a driving force for improvement in their public services.”
If I may be permitted to conflate choice with liberty, I sincerely disagree with Mr. Blair; liberty is an end in itself. It is better to live a struggling life free, with autonomy and responsibility, than it is to live a happy life subordinated, for such a life is a hollow joy.

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