There is a peculiar idea that has recently lept from the murky waters of political philosophy to the muddy shores of public discourse, particularly in the context of the upcoming Presidental elections. This exciting new policy fashion goes by the name of “libertarian paternalism”, and it promises to justify a great deal of governmental intervention in the future.
The premise is simple: certainly it’s all well and good to respect people’s choices and permit them to make their own decisions about their own lives, but it is the responsibility of the government to present options so that people make the right choices, instead of the ones they might make without a guiding hand to direct them. There are so many times and places where people have no clear preferences, and can be directed through framing effects, order of presentation, and careful manipulation of defaults – and so it is the duty of policymakers to present choices in such a way that the selection of the correct options is maximized.
For example, there are nearly a hundred thousand people on the organ transplant waiting list, and there are never enough organs to go around. Clearly, the public is exercising its freedom to choose improperly. Instead of requiring that people consent to the harvesting of their organs and those of their loved ones, we should presume consent unless it is actively denied. Once people have to opt out of organ harvesting, instead of taking the trouble to opt in, there should be a bounty of organs, ready and waiting to be transplanted into the waiting needy!
The technique can be generalized to virtually anything. If we know that people tend not to carefully read information, we can give them fine print instructing them how to opt out of whatever we wish them to do, and then make the alternative the default! People aren’t saving enough for retirement? Make retirement saving mandatory unless people go through the trouble of not doing so. People object to paying taxes? Take the money straight out of their paychecks and give them back any excess – they’ll be grateful! There are many choices available, and they aren’t all what you’d prefer? Make the desirable one mandatory, and spare people the agony of having to choose! At the very least, we can present a long list, and put the options people should choose at the top, so they have to exert themselves to choose improperly.
What possible disadvantages could there be to a world where people don’t have to think to make the right choices?