The Mystery of Libertarian Paternalism
By Bryan Caplan
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.