We, as a country and a people, are treading into some dangerous waters. For those unaware there are relatively new terms surfacing in the American political scene. Most notably is the term “libertarian paternalism” and along with it “choice architect”. It’s hard to define the former without putting a political bent to it so I’ll start with the definition eschewed by one of Obama’s czars:
Libertarian Paternalism is the philosophy that the state or private organizations can help individuals make the choices you would make for themselves, if the individual had the strength of will and sharpness of mind. Unlike strict paternalists who use bans and mandates, this approach only aims to skew individual’s decisions without infringing on one’s freedom of choice.
If you look at how Cass Sunstein (the aforementioned czar), Richard Thaler and others of their ilk have spoken or written about how to use it in modern America, I would amend the definition to something along the lines of:
Libertarian Paternalism is the philosophy that the state or select private organizations can help individuals make the choices that the state or the private organization believe the individuals should make for themselves. Rather than using overt bans and mandates, however, this approach limits the choices through regulations and guidelines (a fine line away from bans and mandates) and select government subsidies financed by the individuals giving the illusion of choice but one’s choice is severly hampered.
If you don’t buy my definition, let’s look at the Cash for Clunkers program for a start. The government, in a short-sighted decision, concluded that (a) people needed to buy more cars to bolster the American auto industry and (b) the American people shouldn’t be driving cars that got under 19 MPG combined. While some individuals might agree with those two aspects, neither are necessarily an absolute “right” decision. It is likely that the result of the program compressed the auto buying cycle for the next year into the period of the Cash for Clunkers program and only extended or delayed the impact to the industry by some number of months. For the second part of my definition, look at the CAFE standards and the willingness of Obama’s EPA to endorse an even stricter standard for cars moving forward. While one might not term them bans or mandates (I would), they are definitely being used to limit the choice of vehicles available to the public. Let me pause and say that I’m not advocating that we all should drive 10 MPG cars that spew pollutants into the air – but there are modern cars that due to size and capacity have limited efficiencies and if the individual has a perceived need for such a vehicle then shouldn’t we allow that choice?
Sunstein and Thaler have argued that this philosophy should be applied to education, personal finance, health care, mortgages, credit cards and the environment. Does anyone else have the little red flashing lights going off with the klaxon sounding? At the base of this is the question of “who?” Who determines what choice an individual would make? Who determines how much “nudging” the state applies to encourage such decisions by the individual? Well, we can find the answer in the second term I noted at the start: “choice architect”. The “choice architect” decides how options are presented (or limited) thereby influencing individual decisions. Is this a country that wants to allow such influencing. Doesn’t something just feel wrong about that? As Obi Wan Kenobi said in Star Wars, “The Force may have a great influence on the weak minded.” On one hand are we as a people weak minded to the point that a government “choice architect” would have influence over us. On the other hand, if you support libertarian paternalism, doesn’t it insult you that you are weak minded to the point that you need nudging from the state?
Media outlets, leaders and pundits are brushing off the accusations that the current administration is heading down a path towards socialism. Maybe they’re right – maybe those opposed to the current administration’s efforts should re-label their signs and cross out “socialism” and write in “libertarian paternalism” (albeit, few would understand it). But in the end, would the implementation of this philosophy be much different in general?
Depending on what the “regulation czar” is allowed to do will play heavily into personal freedoms affected in the next 3 years. Let me say that I do know several self-described libertarians and I would wager that many of them would oppose this philosophy and disagree with the use of the word “libertarian” in the name of the philosophy.
GorT is an eight-foot-tall robot from the 51ˢᵗ Century who routinely time-travels to steal expensive technology from the future and return it to the past for retroinvention. The profits from this pay all the Gormogons’ bills, including subsidizing this website. Some of the products he has introduced from the future include oven mitts, the Guinness widget, Oxy-Clean, and Dr. Pepper. Due to his immense cybernetic brain, GorT is able to produce a post in 0.023 seconds and research it in even less time. Only ’Puter spends less time on research. GorT speaks entirely in zeros and ones, but occasionally throws in a ڭ to annoy the Volgi. He is a massive proponent of science, technology, and energy development, and enjoys nothing more than taking the Czar’s more interesting scientific theories, going into the past, publishing them as his own, and then returning to take credit for them. He is the only Gormogon who is capable of doing math. Possessed of incredible strength, he understands the awesome responsibility that follows and only uses it to hurt people.