More on the new paternalism


Glen Whitman has been, as I've mentioned here before, fighting the good fight against the new paternalism. You know, these things like "Nudge" that are all the rage in Notting Hill circles. We know better than you and we'll push you into doing what's good for you....something that has always reminded me of school but perhaps without the beatings that accompanied the pushing.

The basic idea is of course exactly like school. Then it was yes, Double Maths isn't fun now but we're adults and you're children and yes, we know that it will do you good in the future. The new paternalism is making the same logical argument, just applying it to smoking, drinking, pensions savings and whatever else the self-proclaimed adults insist we children should be doing.

As Glen points out though, there's a horrible logical problem at the heart of such thinking. Those paternalists know what we should be doing by their standards: that's not the new part of it all. The new is that they claim to know what we should be doing by our standards. That is, that their prescriptions help us to achieve our goals by imposing methods which we're simply too dim to think up for ourselves.

Yet here we get to Hayek's point about why socialist economies don't work. Whether you're a planner or a paternalist there is no possible way in which you can know what my, your and the bloke who lives around the corner's desires and aims are. It simply cannot be true that a few people at the centre know what motivates 65 million people or what their dreams are.

So they cannot, it is impossible, for the new paternalists to design structures to nudge us into behaviour which achieves our goals for they are entirely blind as to what our goals are. Thus they can only impose the nudges upon us to get us to what they think are our goals...and that, inevitably, will be to impose upon us what are their goals for us.

It won't work therefore simply because of the old problem of socialist calculation. Since it will not work perhaps we can forget all about it then and go on to do something useful. Like design the system to maximise freedom and liberty so that we all have the option to not only pursue our own goals but to work out what those goals are for ourselves?