"Libertarian paternalism," or Socialism by any other name smells as bad

How do you spell “oxymoron”? My current favorite candidate is “libertarian paternalism.” That’s the phrase that Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein promulgate as an alternative to socialism in their new book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Of course, they don’t say their form of paternalism is a synonym for “socialism.” And they naturally rebel at the idea that the phrase “libertarian paternalism” is a contradiction in terms. As an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the book puts it, they view libertarian paternalism as “a corrective to the longstanding assumption of policy makers that the average person is capable of thinking like Albert Einstein, storing as much memory as IBM’s Big Blue, and exercising the willpower of Mahatma Gandhi.”


Who among policy makers, you might ask, believes that “the average person” is like Einstein, Big Blue, or Gandhi? Name just one. Take your time . . . And while you are scratching your head trying to come up with a name, ponder Sunstein’s remark that “For too long, the United States has been trapped in a debate between the laissez-faire types who believe markets will solve all our problems and the command-and-control types who believe that if there is a market failure then you need a mandate.”

According to the Chronicle, “Sunstein argues that understanding human irrationality can improve how public and private institutions shape policy by increasing the likelihood that people will make decisions that are in their own self-interest. Most important, he and Thaler insist, such nudges can be executed while protecting freedom of choice.”

Haven’t we been down this road before? The socialist experiment has never worked out as advertised. But it continually blooms afresh in the human heart–those portions of it, anyway, colonized by intellectuals, that palpitating tribe Julien Benda memorably denominated “clercs,” as in “trahison de.” But why? What is it about intellectuals that makes them so profligately susceptible to the catnip of socialism?

In a brief memoir called “My Early Beliefs,” John Maynard Keynes summed up its psychological metabolism in his description of Bertrand Russell and his Bloomsbury friends:


Bertie in particular sustained simultaneously a pair of opinions ludicrously incompatible. He held that in fact human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was to carry them on rationally.

What prodigies of existential legerdemain lay compacted in that phrase “all we had to do”!

Professors Thaler and Sunstein are contemporary avatars of this sunny “all-we-have-to-do” rationalism. They speak of “nudging” people to make the right choices (i.e., the choices that Thaler and Sunstein want them to make). In a famous passage in Democracy in America, Tocqueville anatomized this form of paternalism. He called it “democratic despotism,” a less pleasing phrase than “libertarian paternalism,” perhaps, but one that has the advantage of truthfulness. Such despotism, Tocqueville wrote, would

resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. . . . It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living? . . . [This power] extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; . . . it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.


Echoing and extending Tocqueville, Friedrich Hayek argued that one of the most important effects of extensive government control was psychological, “an alteration of the character of the people.” We are the creatures as well as the creators of the institutions we inhabit. “The important point,” he concluded, “is that the political ideals of a people and its attitude toward authority are as much the effect as the cause of the political institutions under which it lives.”

Thaler and Sunstein would doubtless pooh-pooh such objections. The “nudges” they propose, they assure us, are innocuous things like putting fruit at eye level in school cafeterias so that children are more likely to choose the “right” thing to eat.

Do you believe that their nudges will end there? A nudge can be close to a push. And we all know, comrade, what a push can come to.


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