So, I’m back to some of my favorite ramblings – terminology. Only this time with a little bit of a political twist.
While I do have a political section on my blog, I have elected not to fill it with much. Just too much divisiveness out there right now. But I don’t consider this piece to really be the subject of irrational argument. I’m merely puzzling over societal manipulation in one of its many forms, and how it is branded and sold.
That “form” is called “social policy.” And you may not really realize just how pervasive this is used to shift behavior or the reasoning behind the social engineering in all cases. But how does one brand this stuff to make it more socially acceptable?
You call it something like “Libertarian Paternalism.” And then invent the definition for it. To make it palatable.
For starters, here’s an example of social policy. The government places a high tax on cigarettes and tobacco. This has a two-fold goal. It is hoped that by making tobacco products expensive that some people will stop smoking and get healthier. The other side of the coin is that if they don’t stop smoking then revenue has been generated with the tax to help pay for the negative health effects created that the government ultimately has to pay to treat. And to pay for the other societal costs as well, like lost productivity.
I have no idea what the numbers are now, but last I checked, someone died a smoking-related death in this country every ten seconds.
Well, that tax on tobacco is a very direct social policy means at addressing a problem when it’s understood that people don’t always make rational choices. Nor do they make choices that are good for society as a whole. Perhaps because we’ve really emphasized the individual in this country. And, of course, in this particular case, addiction can certainly override rational choice.
And that particular tax (social policy) doesn’t require a fancy label to disguise it in any way. Nor does a tax on gasoline. We all know what these taxes are for. Although people will probably scream if a tax is placed on cheeseburgers tomorrow.
Which brings us back to the label at the heart of today’s discussion, what the hell is Libertarian Paternalism?
In a sense, all social policies are a form of paternalism with the government, either local or national, or even with private interests, trying to elicit certain behavior. Paternalism, however, runs completely counter to the idea of being libertarian, a philosophy embracing total freedom of choice, the right to live one’s life anyway one sees fit, with only one exception. That exception is that any given persons’ choice or action cannot impede on the equal right of another. “In the libertarian view, all human relationships should be voluntary; the only actions that should be forbidden by law are those that involve the initiation of force against those who have themselves used force – actions like murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and fraud.”
Libertarian Paternalism is the idea (or fiction, depending on how you view it) “that it is both possible and legitimate for private and public institutions to affect behavior while also respecting freedom of choice, . . .”
So, what’s an example of a social policy hiding behind the label of libertarian paternalism? Retirement.
Yes, it seems people do not put enough money away for retirement. And society, or at least a portion of our society, is concerned with this for a couple of reasons. First society (or government and private interest groups) wants to minimize the number of people it has to help support through government action, and secondly, businesses need people to have buying power. It does no good for a business to produce goods, if a large sector of society (retirees) has no money to buy them.
It’s about them dollars.
Under libertarian paternalism, people are given a “nudge” to shape their behavioral economics.
So in this case, an employer would automatically enroll it’s employees in a 401K plan like a good parent would. But in order to claim that a libertarian freedom of choice of action is still present, the employer provides an “opt out” provision. Of course, the employee is strongly discouraged from exercising that provision, or may not be told about it.
The so-called “nudge” is supposed to push people towards choices they would make had they not been afflicted with “cognitive and volitional frailties.” In other not so pleasant terms, this form of paternalism, as most all are, operates under the assumption that we individuals are too stupid to do what is best for us.
So what do you think? Are we really too stupid to make rational economic decisions? Should government and private employers step in to make them for us? Are such types of societal manipulation truly maintaining a libertarian view of independent choice? Or should the government and private entities simply bug off and let the chips fall where they may?
Postscript: I bring up the topic of social policy (or manipulation) at this juncture in time because of the current crisis facing us with the global pandemic. You might find it interesting to observe what policies and actions are put in place by the government and by the private sector to influence behavior, and think about what the motives are for shaping particular changes in behavior. There may be things going on that are much deeper than just the appearance of an interest in promoting public health.
Photo: The US Capitol with a bit of photo fun. I took this pic back in 1995 when I joined a protest march for safe nursing staffing.