Did you know that not all forms of paternalism abrogate freedom of choice? And that some forms of paternalism may be warranted?

You can have it both ways: Promote freedom of choice and help people to make the right decisions. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler co-authored two papers (available here and here) in which they defend a form of paternalism called “soft” paternalism (which I will explain later) that harnesses the imperfectability of people to “engineer” better outcomes. They eventually co-wrote and published Nudge, in which they offer a more extensive defense of it.

Even if you still feel less inclined to accept the idea of libertarian paternalism—as I have described it so far— you should not deny the evidence of our ineptitude as decision-makers. The evidence is on their side.

We suck at making decisions

I down a bottle of Dr. Pepper a few times a week. I know very well that I am chugging nothing more than a 20oz cocktail of carbonated water, caffeine, and high-fructose corn syrup. And I drink this carbonated goodness in spite of the fact that I’m pretty health-conscious.Welcome to cognitive dissonance—imbibing this sugary, refreshing, and oh-so-tasty carbonated drink while knowing, consciously, that it is an unhealthy beverage and that I want to make healthy choices.

The irrational quirks just pile up. We are too often apprehensive about change and have an aversion to potential loss or risk. Many of us do not defer gratification enough.  Examples of irrational behavior and myopic choices abound. So the paternalists have their finger on something—they get human nature right.

Your choices are already heavily influenced

There is no such thing as a neutral choice. A neutral choice would be one that does not infringe on the thinking or behavior of other people—and this just doesn’t happen. For example, there is no such thing as a neutrally-designed building; a building “must have doors, elevators, restrooms,” all of which are details that influence the choices that people make as they move about the structure.

To bring it a bit closer to home, pretty much any store you walk into is influencing the decisions you make, just by the way things are arranged.

Suppose you run a small shoe boutique in your town and are looking to clear out some of your inventory. You should probably announce a clearance sale and prominently display the stock that you want to get rid of—reel in the passersby with those discount prices and making those items the first things they glimpse at.

In doing so, you’re framing the choices of the people who are walking by (influencing them to come into your store) and those who come in (nudging them to buy on-sale shoes) just by rearranging your merchandise.

Libertarian paternalism seeks to use this mechanism for the greater good

Since planners cannot avoid setting default options, Thaler says that these options should “nudge” people to make the most beneficial choices. Paternalism, in this framework, is then defined as the self-conscious effort by private and public institutions to “steer people’s choices in direction that will improve the choosers’ own welfare.

This is not Bloomberg-style paternalism. Sunstein and Thaler have been advocating for a paternalism that is non-coercive and “soft.” The key principle of libertarian paternalism is that “choice architects” (i.e. planners in private and public institutions) must be committed to freedom of choice (putting the “libertarian” in libertarian paternalism). But since they are going to be guiding people’s choices anyway, those architects should be guided by a concern for the quality of outcomes. Both concerns—for the right to choose and for better outcomes—are mutually reinforcing; choice architects can design environments and set options in a way that “nudges” people toward better and more rational decisions.

What you’re really doing as a soft -paternalist (or as a “choice architect”) is re-framing people’s choices for better decision-making.


It is the true that Sunstein and Thaler do not think that libertarian paternalism should be confined to the private sphere–they believe that planners working for public institutions would find the model useful. With that said, I think it is possible for libertarians to accept the implications of libertarian paternalism while engaging in a discussion about whether its proper place is in the private sphere or public sphere, or both.

Libertarian paternalism does not diminish freedom of choice. We have been primed to think that all paternalist approaches are antithetical to the ideas of liberty. But, arguably, Sunstein and Thaler have made the case that caring about the kinds of decisions that people make, how they make them, and whether or not those decisions benefit them is a form of paternalism that is congruent with a commitment to freedom of choice.