Libertarian paternalism: where’s the harm?

A newly published critique of behavioural economics by Gilles Saint-Paul looks interesting, The Tyranny of Utility: Behavioral Social Science and the Rise of Paternalism. It seems interesting because it’s a ‘right-wing’ critique of the rise of paternalistic theories of policy informed by behavioural thinking in economics and other fields – ‘right-wing’ in so far as it is informed by a Hayekian conception of the inviolability of individual liberty and of limited government. Judging by the four-page intro that you can download from the publisher’s site, the main focus of the critique is on the ‘do-gooding’ that lies behind utilitarian approaches to government – the assumption that the state can make things better. There is some heady rhetoric in these four pages and the blurbs endorsing the book – behavioural economics and associated paternalist approaches might well be ‘dangerous’ “for those who believe in individual freedom and limited government”, in so far as they support intrusions into private decisions lives on the grounds of protecting people from themselves. All this is presented as a possible precursor to dictatorship: “If current trends continue, I foresee a gradual elimination of individual freedom as “social science” makes progress in documenting behavioral biases, measuring happiness, and evaluating the effects of coercive policies, while information technology provides ever more efficient tools of control to the government.”

Ho hum. But what does seem interesting is Saint-Paul’s identification of the sundering of the conception of a unitary self as the key challenge presented by behavioural approaches to neo-classical  assumptions that underwrite laissez-faire models of government, policy and state action. Despite the rhetoric, this does look like a serious engagement with the philosophical issues behind the proliferation of these approaches, coming from a particular perspective. And it should also interupt simple accounts that see soft paternalism and libertarian paternalism as just another moment in the rolling out of ‘neoliberalism’.

And one reason this perspective might be worth taking seriously is because of the uncomfortable convergence between this Hayekian critique, in the name of inviolable liberty, and the default anarcho-inflections that lie beneath a great deal of left suspicion of these approaches, not least those critiques informed by Foucault’s analytics of governmentality. These critiques sometimes seem to be caught in a bind of their own, between a libertarian reflex that is suspicious of the paternalistic bit in ‘libertarian paternalism’ and an inadequate conception of democracy as only ever about contestation, and which forgets the bit about ‘rule’. So this book looks like it might be worth engaging with, although it also makes me want to have the time to re-read Goodin on ‘permissable paternalism’ and Elster on adaptive preferences and models of the forum and various other things on the difference between thinking of democracy in terms of the aggregation of preferences and in terms of the collective, deliberative transformation of preferences (and it makes me want to know more about Sunstein’s trajectory from this latter sort of position to the libertarian paternalist position – and where the difference between them lies).

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