Will Wilkinson, whose CRaSTO rating (Cantankerous Rants as a Share of Total Output) has lately approached one, wrote a cantankerous rant about the apparent atrocity against logic, language, and political theory that Sunstein and Thaler have committed in coining and promoting “libertarianism paternalism.”  Without quoting the whole thing, I want to start by singling out this part:

But there aren’t any “anti-paternalist” objections to making organ donation the default or featuring healthy food in cafeterias, because these ideas have nothing to do with paternalism.

I mean, what could organ donation possibly have to do with paternalism? How can the disposition of one’s organs after one dies possibly redound to the welfare of one’s corpse? This whole discussion is rife with this sort of conceptual and linguistic muddle.

So Wilkinson has basically committed a somewhat-offensive omission, here, since lots of people, for personal or religious or cultural reasons, may actually strongly object to having their organs removed from their body after their death, or object more narrowly to the way that organ donation is practiced, or are fearful that the institution of organ donation may incentivize doctors to, on the margins, alter the way they perform care. So, in fact, a traditionally paternalistic law that mandated organ donation would, in fact, be paternalistic and the subject of no small controversy.

It’s what he concludes, however, that really cuts to the heart of it – but the wrong way, methinks:

Paternalism has to do with making people go in a direction they don’t want to go. The gist of paternalism is that it takes away choices other people think are bad for us to make. By definition, “choice-preserving” policy is not paternalistic policy. By definition, paternalistic policy is not libertarian…

If the sensitivity of human decision-making to the vagaries of context calls into question the wisdom of leaving citizens free to make decisions about their own welfare, then that would suggest an argument against libertarianism and for paternalism. Go ahead. Make the argument against autonomy, if you think it’s an argument worth making. But, for God’s sake, leave the English language alone.

Will: the reason the organ donation example is such a classic example of why “nudging” works is because there is no neutral option. The non-neutrality of choice architecture is, in fact, a fundamental assault on one of the central conceits of libertarianism: that such a thing as “leaving citizens free to make decisions about their own welfare” actually exists as a single, obvious thing.

Classical and neoclassical economics models do not include choice architecture in their factors of what will incentivize individuals to make certain decisions. Yet, these architectures can and do have a very large influence on the choices people make. Libertarianism, at least a certain popular form of it, is if not entirely predicated then strongly reliant on the predictions of classical and neoclassical economic models that laissez-faire policies are not only desirable philosophically but also pragmatically. But there is no one thing that is “leaving people alone” and “giving people choice.” The costs, in thought, time, and effort in opting in or opting out of organ donation are trivial in almost every way. But yet in Germany, where you opt in, 12% are donors, and in Austria, where you opt out, 99% are donors.

So let’s go back to the root of paternalism and say that, much like parents and children, governments have ideas about what is best for citizens and society. But smart parents know that simply issuing orders is often both disrespectful to the autonomy and personhood of the child (especially older children) and likely to backfire as a practical matter. Similarly, smart states know that there are ways to preserve the fundamental freedom that choice offers while still structuring choice in a way that, while not unfair or exploitative, results in socially-beneficial results. That’s libertarian paternalism. It’s a thing, man. It’s cool.

In the end (and I know Wilkinson no longer identifies as libertarianism, but frack it) I think the failure to grasp not simply that local and private power will usually fill the vacuum left by the absence of federal power (and usually to the detriment of freedom and welfare), but that even before you reach that point there is no obvious form that “being left alone” or “having choice” entails is one of the major flaws in libertarian thinking, and why libertarian solutions to problems that don’t engage with that fall flat. It’s especially frustrating since thinkers like Sunstein and Thaler are practically duct-taping a road map to the steering wheel of the libertarian car and it still finds itself spinning circles in abandoned parking lots claiming to be the last defenders of freedom.