The online political commentary website PajamasMedia.com has published my OpEd on Cass Sunstein, who is President Obama’s new director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Sunstein is one of the leading advocates of the philosophy known as “libertarian paternalism”.
Here is the opening of my piece:
Obama’s Regulatory Chief Believes in Paternalistic Government
February 10, 2009 — by Paul Hsieh
The old joke runs, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Most Americans are appropriately skeptical of such a claim, just as they are skeptical when told that they’ve won $10 million in a Nigerian lottery. But President Obama’s selection of Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein to direct the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs threatens to turn this joke into grim reality.
Sunstein is most famous for his approach to government regulation known as “libertarian paternalism,” detailed in his book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (co-authored with Richard Thaler).
The basic premise of libertarian paternalism is that the government should use its power to “nudge” people into acting in their best interest, while leaving them the choice to “opt out.” If the government decides that saving money is good, it would automatically divert a percentage of your paycheck into a savings account in your name unless you explicitly declined. Supporters claim that this preserves freedom because government is only changing the default, while leaving individuals the final choice. It is merely a gentle “nudge,” not a hard push.
However, nudging represents an assault on freedom, because it undermines man’s basic tool of survival — his mind. By creating a default, libertarian paternalism in essence says, “Don’t worry — we’ll do your thinking for you.” Sunstein’s book explicitly compares Americans to a bunch of Homer Simpsons in need of such guidance. If Americans surrender their minds to the government, they become easy prey for demagogues and dictators…
Both Tara Smith and Eric Daniels have also written about Sunstein’s philosophy in Fall 2008 issue of The Objective Standard. Tara mentions his in her article “The Menace of Pragmatism”. Eric Daniels has a review of the Nudge book in the same issue.