The Mind of a Paternalist

The April 2010 edition of Cato Unbound, “Slippery Slopes and the New Paternalism,” is about “libertarian” paternalism and whether it deserves to be called libertarian, without the scare quotes. Richard Thaler, of whom I have written extensively (e.g., see this, this, and this), is a key contributor to the colloquy and a fierce defender of his ideas, which have had their fullest exposition in Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The co-author of Nudge is Cass Sunstein, which should be enough to tell you that “libertarian” paternalism is about paternalism, not liberty. (Even The New York Times Magazine can’t disguise Sunstein’s arrogance.)

Thaler’s method of defending his position is to insist, repeatedly, that it is “libertarian,” even as he oozes paternalism. Consider one of his entries (“The Argument Clinic“) in the Cato Unbound colloquium, where he says the following:

[S]ince the word paternalism is what seems to give [the colloquium’s lead essayist Glen] Whitman fits, let’s re-label our policy “Best Guess”. “Best Guess” is the policy of choosing the choice architecture that is your best guess of what the participants would choose for themselves if they had the time and expertise to make an informed choice.

If that isn’t pure, presumptive arrogance, I don’t know what is. It conveys a presumption of omniscience on the part of the “best guesser,” along with a presumption that the “best guesser” ought to be making decisions for others.

Here’s another passage from Thaler’s post:

In many domains we [paternalists] can drastically improve on what is customary. Consider organ donations. In most states in the United States, to make your donation available you have to take some action such as sign the back of your driver’s license and get two witnesses to sign it. In some countries such as Spain they have switched to an “opt out” system called presumed consent. In Nudge we endorse a third approach, in this domain called “mandated choice.” It also happens to be used in my home state of Illinois.

Under this plan, when you go in to get your drivers license picture retaken every few years, you are asked whether you want to be a donor or not. You must say yes or no to get a license. About two thirds of drivers are saying yes, and lots of lives will be prolonged as a result. This is a great example of libertarian Best Guess in action. Although a large majority of people say in polls that they would want their organs harvested, many never get around to opting in, and a vocal minority in the United States object strenuously to the idea of presumed consent. So it is worthwhile to find a policy that gets many of the benefits of presumed consent without while honoring the preferences of those who object to having to opt out. Mandated choice has some other advantages in this context, namely that families are less likely to overrule the choices of the donor if that choice has been made actively rather than passively.

Let me count the assumptions: (1) Organ donation is the government’s business. (2) The government should deny a driver’s license to a person does not wish to say whether or not he wishes to be an organ donor. (3) This oppression of an individual is justified by the supposed fact that “a large majority of people . . . say that they would want their organs harvested.” Why give the government yet another excuse to intrude into private matters? The obvious answer to that question is that Thaler can’t resist the urge to lead others toward the decisions that he wants them to make. If, when you renew your driver’s license, you’re asked if you want to be an organ donor, your likely (politically correct) response is to say “yes,” even if you don’t really want to be an organ donor. This is not freedom of choice; it is subtle coercion.

Thaler stretches hard to discredit Whitman’s objections to “libertarian” paternalism; for example:

One of the examples we discuss in Nudge is an innovation by the city of Chicago on a dangerous curve on Lake Shore Drive. The city painted horizontal lines across the road that get closer and closer together as the driver approaches the apex of the curve. As we recently posted on our blog, this innovation has reduced accidents by 36%. Does Whitman think this is bad because it was implemented by the government? Should only private toll roads be allowed to think creatively? And notice that the “customary” signage in this location, which included a reduction in the speed limit to 20 mph, was less effective than the nudge.

What does this have to do the subject at hand? The government of Chicago is already in place as the paternalistic provider of Chicago’s streets — having usurped voluntary private decisions about the placement, construction, upkeep, and regulation of those streets. Given that the government is the provider of Chicago’s streets, it has assumed the duty of making those streets “safe” for their users, without the benefit of market feedback about users’ preferences as to the the tradeoff between safety and other attributes (e.g., speed). The government merely adopted an innovation (the horizontal lines), which replaced (or supplemented) another innovation (a speed-limit sign). Horizontal lines are no more or less paternalistic than speed-limit signs, merely different in their effectiveness along one dimension of street-users’ preferences.

In the examples I have given, Thaler simply assumes that government is “the answer.” Instead of arguing that decisions are best made in by private, voluntary actors, he too readily accepts the role of government and, instead, seeks ways to embed it more deeply in our lives by making it seem more effective. That is one path down the slippery slope toward serfdom — a slope that Thaler denies, even as he pours intellectual lubricant on it.

Thaler’s invocation of the Lake Shore Drive innovation is especially revealing. Only a hardened paternalist (if a closeted one) would stretch so hard (and fail) to find something non-paternalistic about one of America’s most paternalistic institutions: the government of Chicago.