07 April 2010

Soft-paternalism turn-about

EconLog | Arnold Kling | My Question for Nudgers

Richard Thaler writes,
we advocate policies that maintain people's freedom to choose at as low a cost as possible.
My question is this: why is it that soft paternalism is always applied to areas where the nudgers want more government involvement? Why is it never applied to instances in which government is involved in ways that go beyond what nudging theory would suggest? My guess is that if one thought about the FDA or Medicare or housing subsidies from a "nudge" perspective, the result would be government policy that is much less intrusive than what we have now. Yet we never hear about such implications of soft paternalism. 
When soft paternalism is used to denounce irrational state policy, I will take it as friendly to libertarians. As long as it is used only to suggest more arenas for government interference, I will view it as just another rationale for ruling-class hegemony.
Apologies for quoting in full, but Kling is just bringing the goods as far as I'm concerned, and this is a short post which deserves to be read entirely by as many people as possible.

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Edited to add — see also Bryan Caplan, 8 Apr '10: "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."

Edited to add, 9 Apr 2010David Henderson notes that in Thaler and Sunstein's book they actually do advocate several such reductions in paternalism. The criticisms listed above do not therefore apply to them, though I think they still do to most of the people who have jumped on the soft paternalism bandwagon in the wake of their book. NB I don't hold that against Sunstein and Thaler.

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