“Libertarian paternalism”?

The Senate hold on Sunstein’s appointment to head OMB’s OIRA has been lifted, so he’s likely to be confirmed. Republicans think his favorable attitude toward cost-benefit analysis for regulation is a good thing; some liberals don’t like the appointment for that very reason.

In Sunstein’s latest book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, he makes the case that people often make bad decisions, and a slight “nudge” (from whom? government, which doesn’t make bad decisions, just look around you!) can set things right and lead to better policy outcomes. Note the smuggling in of the idea that individual choices are properly classified as public policy questions. In any event, Adam Thierer had the following to say about this “libertarian paternalism” over at Tech Liberation Front:

Like so much of what Cass Sunstein writes, there is a subtle elitism at work here. But he often tries to dance around it or pretend it isn’t really elitist at all. In Nudge, that really comes through when he and [coauthor] Thaler use the oxymoron “libertarian paternalism” to describe what they are proposing. What a brilliant rhetorical tactic! Just add the term “libertarian” to your generally elitist proposal and thereby make the poison.. er, uh, medicine easier to swallow!

As the concept of “nudging” implies, there’s little regulators can cook up that they won’t regard as net-beneficial, and worthy of imposing on others. That’s the downside of cost-benefit analysis; it’s all to easy to claim benefits outweigh the costs of the program you champion if you’re the architect of it, or are the agency in charge. From that perch, the world is there for you to lord over; the rest of us are all people things are done to.