The old joke runs, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Most Americans are appropriately skeptical of such a claim, just as they are skeptical when told that they’ve won $10 million in a Nigerian lottery. But President Obama’s selection of Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein to direct the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs threatens to turn this joke into grim reality.
Sunstein is most famous for his approach to government regulation known as “libertarian paternalism,” detailed in his book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (co-authored with Richard Thaler).
The basic premise of libertarian paternalism is that the government should use its power to “nudge” people into acting in their best interest, while leaving them the choice to “opt out.” If the government decides that saving money is good, it would automatically divert a percentage of your paycheck into a savings account in your name unless you explicitly declined. Supporters claim that this preserves freedom because government is only changing the default, while leaving individuals the final choice. It is merely a gentle “nudge,” not a hard push.
However, nudging represents an assault on freedom, because it undermines man’s basic tool of survival — his mind. By creating a default, libertarian paternalism in essence says, “Don’t worry — we’ll do your thinking for you.” Sunstein’s book explicitly compares Americans to a bunch of Homer Simpsons in need of such guidance. If Americans surrender their minds to the government, they become easy prey for demagogues and dictators.
Once we concede the legitimacy of “nudging,” nudges will inevitably escalate. Over time, libertarian paternalism will become less “libertarian” and more “paternalistic.” The government that initially nudges you to save 5% of your income may next nudge you to save 25%. Or buy more vegetables. Or drive fewer miles. And once a default is set, government could make opting out increasingly difficult, then impossible.