Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have a well-constructed piece in the LA Times today on what they call “libertarian paternalism.” By no means do I think their argument lacks merit (I really like the use of “choice architecture” as an illustration of what they’re getting at). In all sorts of spheres of life, it is inevitable that government will be involved in the choices we make and taking that into account is a perfectly legitimate and responsible thing to do. But I think two things are worth pointing out. First, this is deeply consistent with the Deweyan project to define freedom as the ability to choose off a menu (a “cafeteria” in Thaler and Sunstein’s words) of the state’s choosing. As I discuss in my book, Dewey’s conception of liberty involved conditioning the individual to want only what it was “constructive” or “productive” for the individual to want. Dewey defined democracy as “that form of social organization, extending to all the areas and ways of living, in which the powers of individuals shall…be fed, sustained, and directed.” And: “The state has the responsibility for creating institutions under which individuals can effectively realize the potentialities that are theirs.”
“Natural rights and natural liberties,” he insisted, “exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology.” Given Sunstein’s other writings on such things as FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” I think one should at least be skeptical of his affinity for anything like real libertarianism.
Again, government is in the business of constraining and defining choices, so it’s silly to reject these sorts of arguments wholesale. And conservatives, too, believe that there is a role for the state to constrain choices. But, we should at least be cognizant of the long and deep intellectual roots behind projects such as this. This ain’t some new way of thinking.
Will Wilkinson has a typically engaging response. He writes, in part:
…OK. But there’s sure a lot of disagreement about “better” isn’t there? I sense that the fact of pluralism isn’t their chief concern. And the “libertarian” part of this I suspect really is a ruse. If Sunstein and Thaler were our wise choice archietcts, would it be legal or illegal for employers to not offer employment contracts without opt-out savings/investment accounts? Forcing some people to frame choices they offer to others in a way that will bias those people’s choices can’t be libertarian in any meaningful sense.
Then there is the problem of the meaning of default rules. Thaler and Sunstein suggest “If we want to increase the supply of transplant organs in the United States, we could presume that people want to donate, rather than treating nondonation as the default.” But isn’t this the sort of presumption that itself contains a great deal of normative and symbolic content? Does it not say, “Your body presumptively belongs to the commonwealth, and you must take special action to use it as you and your family wish?” Wouldn’t the very existence of such a default rule bias subsequent political deliberation against alternative policies, like legalizing markets in organs and tissue?
Individual choices made again and again create habits. Coordinated patterns of individual actions create norms. Choice architecture not only nudges us to do what we already want to do, but over time shapes what we want and shapes the social context and meaning of choice. By modifying the local frame of choice, the architect systematically affects the global frame of future choices. Suppose manipulating the context of micro-level individual choices eventually shifts political preferences. Do we think it is okay for the state to aim at producing a population with different political preferences, so that they will vote for the things that we, the choice architects, know will make them better off? (My critique of Social Security is that this is terribly illiberal and is exactly what happened.) Obviously this is completely pernicious and unacceptable. Which may be one reason why a chaotic ad hoc gallimaufry of completing choice frames, which add up to nothing in particular and tilts at no one set of values may be precisely what leaves us best off in the end.
But even though I think Will and I are largely on the same page, reading his post reminded me how appealing some of this may be to “liberaltarians” out there, who increasingly define freedom as having government take care of all the hassles in life and letting my let my freak flag fly on the stuff that matters to me. Yes, that sounds a lot like the Lockean vision, except for the fact that what constitutes “the hassles” in life appears to be an ever-expanding list. Wilkinson works with Brink Lindsey the guy who — unintentionally — unleashed the neologism “liberaltarian” upon the world in a New Republic essay a while back. Brink argued in part that “fusionism” — i.e. the marriage of social conservatism and libertarianism officiated by Frank Meyer — was dead and that maybe libertarians could remarry with liberals.
While I think Brink’s arguments are more subtle and nuanced than some of his critics suggested (including at times, perhaps, myself), Deweyan positive liberty is definitely becoming more popular among self-described libertarians, and I find that troubling.
I argue in my book that if we have a dystopia in our future, it’s not the Orwellian kind but the Huxleyan kind. In A Brave New World there is no bravery because all important decisions have been taken away from the individual. People are left with choices about what kind of pre-packaged joy they want delivered to them. Leaving people with the choice of this kind of happy pill or that kind of happy pill is not libertarianism. Obviously, the liberaltarians — and Sunstein and Thaler — would agree. But it’s still worth remembering that once we openly get into the business of constraining peoples’ choices only to “constructive” ones we’ve taken a big and important step in the Huxleyan direction.
Anyway, I’m just rambling now. For those interested, here’s the last bit from an essay I wrote for NR on the liberaltarian dust-up:
Nonetheless, the tension between conservatives and libertarians is not as one-sided as he and others would have us believe. Libertarianism was once primarily concerned with negative liberty — i.e. delineating a zone free of government intrusion. Meyer’s libertarianism was primarily concerned with the ability of the individual to find the virtuous path within “an objective moral order based on ontological foundations” best expressed in Western civilization. As such, fusionism was less a coalitional doctrine than a metaphysical imperative. But these days, phrases like “objective moral order” will get you knocked off Cato’s Kwanzaa-card list. Liberty’s virtue is no longer that it supports the virtuous. Rather, according to today’s leading libertarians, economic freedom’s virtue lies in its ability to provide everybody the custom-made lifestyle of his choice.
Virginia Postrel, the former editor of Reason, wrote an engaging ode to consumerism in The Substance of Style. In The Future and Its Enemies, she made a compelling case for change and cultural evolution without heed to tradition. Her successor at Reason, Nick Gillespie, has moved the magazine even more sharply toward cultural libertarianism. There’s still reverence for the free market, but mostly for its creative destruction of tradition. My close friend (and Reason’s science correspondent) Ronald Bailey has thrown his eggs into the basket of biotechnology, celebrating its potential for individualized eugenic betterment as “liberation biology.” Cato’s Will Wilkinson seeks to graft liberal philosopher John Rawls onto Hayek to form something called “Rawlsekianism.” And Lindsey’s next book certainly doesn’t sound like it shares Meyer’s preoccupation with philosophical imperatives. It’s called The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture.
This emphasis on the liberating power of technology and wealth — i.e., materialism and positive liberty — represents an enormous philosophical transformation within libertarianism that echoes, albeit faintly, elements of the economic liberalism of John Dewey and FDR. It also shows that today’s libertarians have a different view of the 1960s than their forefathers, such as Meyer. Evaluating the ideas within this burgeoning enterprise would require another essay, and a very long one. But three preliminary points are worth mentioning. First, a new left-leaning fusionism is a long way off. The flaws in Lindsey’s dream are Aesopian: The scorpion had to sting the frog because that is what scorpions do; liberals have to engage in economic social engineering because that is what they do. Second, sure, lib-lib tactical alliances are possible, but conservatives would be idiotic to whine excessively about them. After all, the true sign of your movement’s success is when your opponents start copying you.
Lastly, if the conservative-libertarian union is in trouble, it’s not solely because conservatives have strayed from their vows. Marriages tend to dissolve when both parties “grow apart,” and libertarians have been doing quite a bit of growing themselves. “You’ve changed” is a fair accusation from both sides, though “I don’t even know you anymore” is surely an exaggeration. Perhaps the real lesson here is that conservatives and libertarians need to recommit themselves to the fusionist project. In other words: Let’s seek counseling.