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Libertarian Paternalism. The very name is oxymoronic and deceptive. Popularized by authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book, Nudge, "libertarian paternalism" is a current buzz-term for policy makers. Andrew Ferguson writes in The Weekly Standard,
It’s libertarian... because it forswears government mandates wherever possible. It’s paternalistic because it wants government to “nudge” citizens into behaving in ways that policymakers prefer.
The practice is also known as choice architecture and behavioral economics. This concept is especially relevant since President Obama is a self-professed supporter of behavior economics. And one of it's most prominent legal theorists, Cass Sunstein, is the director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget. It is important to understand that under the Obama administration, we are all being subjected to choice architecture and libertarian paternalism. It starts with a faulty premise. As the Institute for Government states in their report, Mindspace,
Influencing people’s behaviour is nothing new to Government, which has often used tools such as legislation, regulation or taxation to achieve desired policy outcomes. But many of the biggest policy challenges we are now facing – such as the increase in people with chronic health conditions – will only be resolved if we are successful in persuading people to change their behaviour, their lifestyles or their existing habits.
Gone is the notion of a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." Now government is persuading the people. It results in expanded government. By limiting the choices of citizens, the government limits personal freedoms, provides justification for further government action, and distracts from government action that is not legitimized. First, it limits personal freedoms. The goal of choice architecture is to achieve a desired outcome by presenting a limited number of options, each of which are crafted with an understanding of human behavior. Proponents of this method pride themselves on leaving room for personal liberty and freedom of choice, but have they really? If they allow for options A, B, and C but the free market has made allowances for options A-Z, are options being given? Or taken away? Clearly it is the latter, and by taking away opportunity, the government is taking away freedoms. Next, it provides justification for further government action. When the government decides the options, they get to decide the "right" choices and the "wrong" choices. For example, in an effort to persuade citizens to adopt more energy efficient practices, the government started offering tax credits for certain behaviors. But when not enough people where choosing the right, energy-efficient options, the government felt justified to begin taking the choices away completely. You might have noticed that traditional incandescent light bulbs have been disappearing from store shelves. Also on this point, limiting people's freedoms tend to make people upset. As David Gordon of the Ludwig von Mises Institute points out in his article on this topic, "force may be used only in response to aggression." By removing choices from society, people get aggravated. When aggravated, they might get aggressive. When people become aggressive and unruly, the government feels justified in assuming even more power. Last, it distracts from government action that is not legitimized. When a child is upset about not getting their way, a good parenting strategy is to distract the child with another option. For example, "No Jimmy, I won't take you to the movies right now. But what game do you want to play?" The government has a similar approach, "No citizens, we won't reduce your taxes. But what social program do you want?" Or, "No citizens, we won't deregulate the [pick an industry]. But to what country do you want us to send foreign aid?" This strategy works great -- for parents! Which is apparently the role that the proponents of choice architecture see themselves filling. It's even in the name, libertarian paternalism. It is deceitful to call it libertarian, because there is no intention of preserving liberty within it. Gordon says,
Those who wish to preserve liberty must take people's actions as they find them, not substitute for them "better" or more "rational" actions, based on an assessment of what people "really" want.
And it is disdainful to call it paternalistic. Dare we remind the government that they are not our parents, but our employees. Hired and paid by our votes and tax dollars. This whole concept of governance is fundamentally wrong-headed, regardless of how pervasive it is. As Americans, our actions should never be herded. Our voices should be heeded.