In Defense of Paternalism

By Mark Wilson

Policies designed to encourage people to do things that are good for them, and discourage people from doing things that are bad for them, are not in vogue. They’re derided as the province of a “nanny state” that wants to override private individuals’ ability to decide what’s good for them.

Cass Sunstein, co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, isn’t so sure. In The New York Review of Books this week, Sunstein reviews another book about “coercive paternalism,” concluding that paternalism isn’t such a bad thing, after all. In the abstract, personal autonomy—including a person’s ability to judge the consequences of his or her actions—is vital. Empirically, however, we’re terrible at judging risk (as Bruce Schneier has pointed out, we have a bias toward the spectacular, even though spectacular threats, like shark attacks, are extremely unlikely to occur). We’re also really bad at gauging outcomes and evaluating our own competence compared to others; Sunstein notes that 80 percent of drivers in one survey “were found to believe that they were safer and more skillful than the median driver.” It’s not that people are stupid; it’s that our feeble human brains are easily lured into many of the dozens of cognitive biases out there. Many of us also don’t have sufficient information to make a well-informed decision.

This presents a quandary for policy-makers. Yes, we value autonomy, but at the same time, must the state sit idly by as its citizens make objectively poor decisions? When people use their personal autonomy to make bad decisions, it’s often everyone else who foots the bill.

Sarah Conly, author of the book Sunstein reviews, advocates a middle ground. John Stuart Mill’s proscription on the state outlawing bad behaviors still stands, but the state should be permitted to gently coerce (“nudge”) people in the right direction. Don’t ban sugary drinks, but do impose a tax on the drinks, or limit portion sizes.

As we learn more about human brains, we’re inevitably drawn away from the Lochner era’s veneration of personal choice and responsibility and into a world where people are easily fooled, to their detriment, by advertising and suggestion. And sometimes, the exercise of personal choice in the abstract is heavily outweighed by the probability of harm caused by making a bad decision and the magnitude of that harm. Tucker Carlson famously once said that he doesn’t wear a seat belt simply because the government makes him do it. But how would he be able to exercise his personal liberty after he had been thrown through a windshield at 50 miles per hour? It’s the most Pyrrhic of Pyrrhic victories.

In 2010, conservatives were outraged—outraged!—that President Obama would presume to require everyone to have health insurance. But what does not having health insurance get you? (You can find out by reading Steven Brill’s Time cover story. TL; DR: lots of expensive bills that you can’t pay.) It’s hard to exercise personal liberty when you’re dying or dead.

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