June 2, 2008

Libertarian Paternalism

Filed under: Governance — Bottom's Up @ 3:09 am

A few weeks back, the LA times carried an interesting article in what is titled ‘Libertarian Paternalism’. The article basically advocates a new form of libertarian governance where people are given choices for various aspects of their lives. However, the difference comes from the fact that the choices put forward are such that the Government can actually have some say in how things are planned and controlled through what is called ‘Choice Architecture’.

Quoting –
The libertarian aspect of the approach lies in the straightforward insistence that, in general, people should be free to do what they like. They should be permitted to opt out of arrangements they dislike, and even make a mess of their lives if they want to. The paternalistic aspect acknowledges that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better.

Private and public institutions have many opportunities to provide free choice while also taking real steps to improve people’s lives.

In a nutshell, the approach is

The most important social goals are often best achieved not through mandates and bans but with gentle nudges

Now, choice architecture has indeed been a part of our everyday lives through design of various things where we make choices but this the application of the same to governance is indeed an idea I have not seen publicized much. This does raise to me two issues worth considering

1. Can such a form of governance actually work. Or would it be a form of governance where nothing ever gets done. If this can work, can it work across different types of countries – big/small, homogeneous/heterogeneous, rich/poor, etc. Also, where does benevolent advocacy through subtle means end and Big Brother jump in?

2. At a more fundamental level, is this even fair to the people where the illusion of a choice is indeed given, but the choice given is quite restricted and thus the freedoms are less and delusional?


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