But just how much “nudging” should the government do?
That’s the question posed by liberal academic Cass R. Sunstein in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books. He’s reviewing “Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism,” by Sarah Conly, and Sunstein, a former Obama administration official, largely agrees with her.
“Many Americans abhor paternalism,” Sunstein says. “They think that people should be able to go their own way, even if they end up in a ditch. When they run risks, even foolish ones, it isn’t anybody’s business that they do.”
He brings in John Stuart Mills’ seminal work, “On Liberty,” which says government exist to protect us from others, not from ourselves.
As Mill wrote in 1859, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant.”
But as Sunstein and the author he’s reviewing point out, people often make bad choices. “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future,” Conly says, quite accurately.
Britain has already done so, with its own “Nudge Unit” of behavioral “experts” who want to “help” citizens make the right choices.
“The Behavioral Insights Team has been quietly reshaping policies to coax Britons into behaving — whether that means paying their taxes on time, saving energy or quitting smoking,” the AFP reports. “By tinkering here and adjusting there, the nudge unit claims that it will have saved Britain $483 million over the next five years — taking even its director, David Halpern, by surprise.”
Sunstein and Conly seem to recognize the limits of paternalism.
“Freedom of choice is an important safeguard against the potential mistakes of even the most well-motivated officials…” he writes. “Notwithstanding these objections, Conly convincingly argues… when people are imposing serious risks on themselves, it is not enough to celebrate freedom of choice and ignore the consequences.”
And there’s the real point, though both Sunstein and Conly reject it. “Well meaning” public officials cannot be trusted to make our choices for us, because they’re human too.
Whether it’s portion size, what we should and shouldn’t eat, or another other behavior officials disapprove of at the moment, choices should be left up to us. We’ll bear the consequences.