Beware of Libertarian Paternalists

I have written extensively about paternalism of the so-called libertarian variety. (See this post and the posts linked therein.) Glen Whitman, in two recent posts at Agoraphilia, renews his attack on “libertarian paternalism,” the main proponents of which are Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (S&T). In the first of the two posts, Whitman writes:

[Thaler] continues to disregard the distinction between public and private action.

Some critics contend that behavioral economists have neglected the obvious fact that bureaucrats make errors, too. But this misses the point. After all, wouldn’t you prefer to have a qualified, albeit human, technician inspect your aircraft’s engines rather than do it yourself?

The owners of ski resorts hire experts who have previously skied the runs, under various conditions, to decide which trails should be designated for advanced skiers. These experts know more than a newcomer to the mountain. Bureaucrats are human, too, but they can also hire experts and conduct research.Here we see two of Thaler’s favorite stratagems deployed at once. First, he relies on a deceptively innocuous, private, and non-coercive example to illustrate his brand of paternalism. Before it was cafeteria dessert placement; now it’s ski-slope markings. Second, he subtly equates private and public decision makers without even mentioning their different incentives. In this case, he uses “bureaucrats” to refer to all managers, regardless of whether they manage private or public enterprises.

The distinction matters. The case of ski-slope markings is the market principle at work. Skiers want to know the difficulty of slopes, and so the owners of ski resorts provide it. They have a profit incentive to do so. This is not at all coercive, and it is no more “paternalist” than a restaurant identifying the vegetarian dishes.

Public bureaucrats don’t have the same incentives at all. They don’t get punished by consumers for failing to provide information, or for providing the wrong information. They don’t suffer if they listen to the wrong experts. They face no competition from alternative providers of their service. They get to set their own standards for “success,” and if they fail, they can use that to justify a larger budget.

And Thaler knows this, because these are precisely the arguments made by the “critics” to whom he is responding. His response is just a dodge, enabled by his facile use of language and his continuing indifference – dare I say hostility? – to the distinction between public and private.

In the second of the two posts, Whitman says:

The advocates of libertarian paternalism have taken great pains to present their position as one that does not foreclose choice, and indeed even adds choice. But this is entirely a matter of presentation. They always begin with non-coercive and privately adopted measures, such as the ski-slope markings in Thaler’s NY Times article. And when challenged, they resolutely stick to these innocuous examples (see this debate between Thaler and Mario Rizzo, for example). But if you read Sunstein & Thaler’s actual publications carefully, you will find that they go far beyond non-coercive and private measures. They consciously construct a spectrum of “libertarian paternalist” policies, and at one end of this spectrum lies an absolutely ban on certain activities, such as motorcycling without a helmet. I’m not making this up!…

[A]s Sunstein & Thaler’s published work clearly indicates, this kind of policy [requiring banks to offer “plain vanilla” mortgages] is the thin end of the wedge. The next step, as outlined in their articles, is to raise the cost of choosing other options. In this case, the government could impose more and more onerous requirements for opting out of the “plain vanilla” mortgage: you must fill out extra paperwork, you must get an outside accountant, you must have a lawyer present, you must endure a waiting period, etc., etc. Again, this is not my paranoid imagination at work. S&T have said explicitly that restrictions like these would count as “libertarian paternalism” by their definition….

The problem is that S&T’s “libertarian paternalism” is used almost exclusively to advocate greater intervention, not less. I have never, for instance, seen S&T push for privatization of Social Security or vouchers in education. I have never seen them advocate repealing a blanket smoking ban and replacing it with a special licensing system for restaurants that want to allow their customers to smoke. If they have, I would love to see it.

In their articles, S&T pay lip service to the idea that libertarian paternalism lies between hard paternalism and laissez faire, and thus that it could in principle be used to expand choice. But look at the actual list of policies they’ve advocated on libertarian paternalist grounds, and see where their real priorities lie.

S&T are typical “intellectuals,” in that they presume to know how others should lead their lives — a distinctly non-libertarian attitude. It is, in fact, a hallmark of “liberalism.” In an earlier post I had this to say about the founders of “liberalism” — John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hill Green, and Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse:

[W]e are met with (presumably) intelligent persons who believe that their intelligence enables them to peer into the souls of others, and to raise them up through the blunt instrument that is the state.

And that is precisely the mistake that lies at heart of what we now call “liberalism” or “progressivism.”  It is the three-fold habit of setting oneself up as an omniscient arbiter of economic and social outcomes, then castigating the motives and accomplishments of the financially successful and socially “well placed,” and finally penalizing financial and social success through taxation and other regulatory mechanisms (e.g., affirmative action, admission quotas, speech codes, “hate crime” legislation”). It is a habit that has harmed the intended beneficiaries of government intervention, not just economically but in other ways, as well….

The other ways, of course, include the diminution of social liberty, which is indivisible from economic liberty.

Just how dangerous to liberty are S&T? Thaler is an influential back-room operator, with close ties to the Obama camp. Sunstein is a long-time crony and adviser who now heads the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where he has an opportunity to enforce “libertarian paternalism”:

…Sunstein would like to control the content of the internet — for our own good, of course. I refer specifically to Sunstein’s “The Future of Free Speech,” in which he advances several policy proposals, including these:

4. . . . [T]he government might impose “must carry” rules on the most popular Websites, designed to ensure more exposure to substantive questions. Under such a program, viewers of especially popular sites would see an icon for sites that deal with substantive issues in a serious way. They would not be required to click on them. But it is reasonable to expect that many viewers would do so, if only to satisfy their curiosity. The result would be to create a kind of Internet sidewalk, promoting some of the purposes of the public forum doctrine. Ideally, those who create Websites might move in this direction on their own. If they do not, government should explore possibilities of imposing requirements of this kind, making sure that no program draws invidious lines in selecting the sites whose icons will be favoured. Perhaps a lottery system of some kind could be used to reduce this risk.

5. The government might impose “must carry” rules on highly partisan Websites, designed to ensure that viewers learn about sites containing opposing views. This policy would be designed to make it less likely for people to simply hear echoes of their own voices. Of course, many people would not click on the icons of sites whose views seem objectionable; but some people would, and in that sense the system would not operate so differently from general interest intermediaries and public forums. Here too the ideal situation would be voluntary action. But if this proves impossible, it is worth considering regulatory alternatives. [Emphasis added.]

A Left-libertarian defends Sunstein’s foray into thought control, concluding that

Sunstein once thought some profoundly dumb policies might be worth considering, but realized years ago he was wrong about that… The idea was a tentative, speculative suggestion he now condemns in pretty strong terms.

Alternatively, in the face of severe criticism of his immodest proposal, Sunstein merely went underground, to await an opportunity to revive his proposal. I somehow doubt that Sunstein, as a confirmed paternalist, truly abandoned it. The proposal certainly was not off-the-cuff, running to 11 longish web pages.  Now, judging by the bulleted list above, the time is right for a revival of Sunstein’s proposal. And there he is, heading the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The powers of that office supposedly are constrained by the executive order that established it. But it is evident that the Obama adminstration isn’t bothered by legal niceties when it comes to the exercise of power. Only a few pen strokes stand between Obama and a new, sweeping executive order, the unconstitutionality of which would be of no import to our latter-day FDR.

It’s just another step beyond McCain-Feingold, isn’t it?

Thus is the tyranny of “libertarian paternalism.” And thus does the death-spiral of liberty proceed.