Posts Tagged ‘libertarian paternalism’

Eric Posner’s article on Cass Sunstein is an excellent profile of the man’s views and positions and it also accurately summarises why I am happy about the Sunstein appointment.

Sunstein has strong liberal instincts—his work is animated by his concern for the rights and well-being of poor and vulnerable people and oppressed groups—and he believes that government is there to help. But what makes his work so interesting and influential is that he has a hard-headed appreciation of the problems of government, and has explored, with extraordinary imagination, approaches to regulation that harness the power of government without unduly infringing on people’s freedom or in other ways producing bad outcomes.

The approach that has received the most attention recently is Sunstein’s argument (with Dick Thaler) in support of what they call “libertarian paternalism,” government policies that help prevent errors that people predictably make because of cognitive biases (Sunstein is a prominent critic of the rational actor model used by economists) without interfering with the choices of sophisticated people who know their interests better than the government does. This book is a perfect example of how Sunstein thinks. He shares the liberal-friendly view that people do not always act in their rational self-interest and therefore benefit from government regulation, but he rejects the strongly paternalistic policies that have done more harm than good and are in any event politically unpopular and have led to backlash. His middle way is a sophisticated attempt to support a kind of regulation that might do some good and enjoy political support from both sides of the spectrum, and hence actually have a chance to persist across administrations and vicissitudes in public opinion.


Sunstein is one of the most talented academics around. With his deep knowledge of government regulation, he would be the perfect head of OIRA. Among the many people I have met in academia and government, he is one of the least ideologically rigid, one of the most open to argument and evidence. His critics should at least admit that he will give a fair hearing to their concerns. He would be an extraordinary asset for the Obama administration.

To read all Sunstein-tagged posts on this blog, click here.

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Cass Sunstein, Harvard law professor and Obama advisor, will head the OIRA.

I have devoted several posts in the past on Sunstein and his brand of behavorial economics. He is the author of the book Nudge and the originator of the misleading term ‘libertarian paternalism’ (which should probably be renamed non-coercive paternalism, soft paternalism or choice-preserving paternalism). Will Wilkinson wrote an excellent (and fairly critical) review of Nudge in Reason magazine; it should be mandatory reading for anyone who wishes to know more about the pros and cons of the idea.

In short, Sunstein is no libertarian. What is important though — as Eugene Volokh puts it — is that he is brilliant, thoughtful, and ideologically probably as good as libertarians can hope for from the Obama administration. He is in my view the best pick Obama has unveiled so far.

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An unusual tactic to stop make men from peeing on the floor:

Authorities at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam have etched the image of a black housefly into each urinal. It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess. But if you give them a target, they can’t help but try to hit it. Similar designs have been implemented in urinals around the world, including mini soccer goals, bulls-eyes, and urine video games (seriously). Do they work? Since the bugs were etched into the airport urinals, spillage has decreased by 80 percent.

This fits into the Sunstein philosophy of nudges and ‘libertarian paternalism’ that I have posted on several times in the past.

Incidentally Sunstein, a law professor is a friend and advisor of Barack Obama. I would love it if Obama — assuming he becomes president — appoints him to the Supreme Court. Sunstein is no libertarian; however his brand of ‘libertarian paternalism’ is definitely better (and more pro-freedom) than that of any of the mainstream leftist candidates the Dems are likely to propose.

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In my previous post, I expressed my distaste for mandatory helmet laws and criticised them from a libertarian perspective.

However, it also seems apt to point out here that as far as things like helmet and seatbelt laws are concerned, there exists a middle path between coercive paternalism and complete unregulation, namely what Thaler and Sunstein call libertarian paternalism. For instance, one could have motorcycle helmet laws that allow riders to go without a helmet but only if they get a special license. To qualify for the license, a rider would have to take an extra driving course (and perhaps submit proof of health insurance). It would involve no extra tests, and getting this special license would not really be harder than getting the more regular license. However, due to the power of inertia in human behavior, and the tendency of individuals to go with the default, many people would opt to get the regular license. This system would enable people to ride without a helmet if they really want to but would also incorporate much of the safety gains of current laws.

(And I promise this is my last post on this topic today.)

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George F. Will believes that Barack Obama is a ‘libertarian paternalist’ at heart.

I had made the same point in this post from a couple of weeks back.

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This article begins:

Democrat Barack Obama told voters Saturday he would push an aggressive economic agenda as president: cutting taxes for the middle class, raising taxes on the wealthy, pouring money into “green energy” and requiring employers to set up retirement saving plans for their workers.

Hidden deep inside the article, however, is the following passage:

He said employers should be required to set up retirement saving plans for workers even if they contribute no money to them. Workers would automatically be enrolled unless they choose to opt out, he said.

I am not a huge fan of Obama’s economic policies, but I do like the fact that he prefers a nudging approach as opposed to the full-blown nanny-state one favoured by many politicians. That was also apparent in his approach to health insurance, which, unlike Hillary’s, does not include a mandate that everyone has to buy insurance. In Obama’s worldview, the state ought to be there to help, but not by applying too much direct force. It is debatable if the resulting policies are good, what is indisputable is that this kind of ‘soft paternalism’ that consists of opt-ins, opt-outs and nudges is infinitely preferable to the coercive paternalism advocated by some others who believe they know best how you ought to run your life.

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Another post by Cass Sunstein in the libertarian paternalism series.

Meanwhile, I agree with those who do not like the term ‘libertarian paternalism’. Among the serious alternatives I have encountered so far, I think ‘non-coercive paternalism’ fits best.

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Here’s another post by Cass Sunstein.

Also, I find one of the comments below that post worth repeating in full:

Having effectively evicted us from the label “liberal,” the Left now wants to appropriate the word “libertarian” as well.

I guess we should be flattered that our intellectual real estate is appreciating, but I am concerned that the truly freedom-minded will be priced out of the mainstream. If we don’t fight to hang on to “libertarian” we could end up with something like “minarchist” – the equivalent of sleeping under a bridge in a cardboard box on the lunatic fringe.

Hehe. I guess the commenter is being slightly tongue-in-cheek here but labels do matter and I certainly share his unhappiness at the appropriation of a beautiful word ( “liberal” ) — possibly for good — by those whose policies have nothing to do with liberty.

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A guest-blog at Volokh by Cass Sunstein on libertarian paternalism. Hopefully we will see more writings on the subject.

Unlike some hardcore libertarians, I am sympathetic to the idea of libertarian paternalism, particularly the “one-click” variety that Cass mentions. In any case, as even libertarian opponents of the idea will agree, libertarian paternalism is certainly a huge improvement over the pervasive (and coercive) paternalism that exists today, and will possibly be easier to implement than full-blown libertarianism. Of course, the crucial point in libertarian paternalism is the ease of opt-out; if you make the default too hard to change, you take the libertarian out of the phrase.

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