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No Nudging

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler endorse what they call "libertarian paternalism."  My initial temptation is to accuse this term of possessing no more meaning than terms such as "dry water" or "ugly beauty."  But reflection nudges me away from such a harsh conclusion.  There is genuine content to their proposal — content that is worthwhile to carefully consider.

As I say in my letter (below), a nudge from government is better than a command from government.  Preserving the freedom to resist government nudges is a good thing, particularly if the alternative is to be commanded by government.

Maximum freedom of individual choice might well capture the core policy prescription of libertarianism (or, better, "radical [classical] liberalism").  But the political philosophy that today stands on the strong shoulders of the likes of Adam Smith, Wilhelm von Humboldt, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan involves more than a commitment to maximum possible freedom of individual choice.  It involves also a tolerance of all peaceful individual preferences, even when — perhaps even especially when — these preferences differ from those of the majority or of the prevalent opinion leaders.

That is, it’s not just that libertarians want everyone to have maximum possible freedom of choice; libertarians also resist passing judgment on other person’s peaceful choices.  Libertarian Joe will (indeed, should) judge how well Sam’s peaceful choices might comport with Joe’s own values and lifestyle, but libertarian Joe will not stand in judgment of Sam’s peaceful choices as these affect Sam’s life.

In short, libertarians neither want government to nudge them into making different choices nor to nudge other persons into making those choices that we would make if we were those other persons.

And, at a more practical level, libertarians recognize the state to be an institution more vile and cagey than it is generally understood to be by non-libertarians.  Thus my letter to the Financial Times:

Cass Sunstein and Richard
Thaler seek to replace most government force with government "nudges"
("The dramatic effect of a firm nudge," August 13).  They say that such
nudging preserves "freedom of choice [as] an important safeguard
against the bias, confusion and self-interest of government."  While I
agree that nudges are preferable to force, better still would be to
stop government, as much as possible, from having ANY influence on
persons’ choices.  Neither force nor nudging.

Profs. Sunstein
and Thaler inadvertently offer a reason why government nudging is
dangerous, namely, that government decision-making is biased, confused,
and self-interested.  Surely such an institution is not to be trusted
to act wisely when it nudges us – especially if the authors are correct
that we respond to nudges so dramatically.

Donald J. Boudreaux


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