Not long after I noted a new form of paternalism, David Brooks, from his perch as token conservative at The New York Times, devoted a column to the idea that governments should “nudge” people to act better, rather than force them.
He is enthusiastic. “[I]n practice, it is hard to feel that my decision-making powers have been weakened because when I got my driver’s license enrolling in organ donation was the default option.” He thinks the reality of “soft paternalism” is innocuous in terms of coercion, powerful in terms of consequences, like more donated organs.
Still, he sees the skeptical, anti-paternalist case: “Do we want government stepping in to protect us from our own mistakes? Many people argue no. This kind of soft paternalism will inevitably slide into a hard paternalism, with government elites manipulating us into doing the sorts of things they want us to do.”
But, he argues, this just hasn’t happened. There’s no evidence for this slippery slope.
Not so fast. Economist Donald Boudreaux can explain the lack of data: the reason we see so little move from soft (option-based) paternalism to hard (force-based) paternalism is that most paternalism starts out hard and gets tougher as it goes along: “One reason why the empirical record isn’t more full of nudges turning into diktats is that government typically issues diktats from the get-go.” Paternalists tend to forgo the suggestion for the compulsion.
And their current emphasis on nudging will likely change once their nudging gets them nowhere near their Nirvana. We know this not from direct evidence about soft paternalism, but about the history of government in general and the enduring popularity of paternalism in its hardest of forms.
This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.