Libertarian paternalism: is it better to think less about our choices?

This fall, I've been working my way through Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, a book that explores "choice architecture" and decision research to determine how and why we make choices, and how we can make better ones. While I'm only a couple chapters in, one of the most compelling concepts introduced thus far is the idea of "libertarian paternalism."

I must admit I was rather put off by the phrase initially--the authors themselves admit that both words independently have some negative connotations that make it difficult to see how and why this phrase could be describing something overall good for individuals. However, in its essence, this phrase essentially means designing choices for individuals in such a way as to "influence choices that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves" (5). Thus, the "libertarian" component means that options will not be limited or banned or restricted, and the "paternalism" component means that designers/choice architects can create a scenario that influences individuals to make the best decision to maximize their health, happiness, wealth and overall life. The phrase "libertarian paternalism", in other words, is the book's namesake--it's a nudge.

I think what is most appealing to me about this concept is its balanced approach. It acknowledges the fact that humans are not rational, perfect beings who always make decisions based off what is most beneficial to our lives--we need guidance and nudges to sort through the many options available and determine which is truly the best. But at the same time, libertarian paternalism does not mean the elimination of options; it explicitly allows for most or all options to be available. It simply advocates for the design of a situation where an individual is nudged towards the best possible option.

As someone who has frequently felt overwhelmed by the plethora of options available in modern society, I think there are multiple layers through which libertarian paternalism can be good and useful for individuals. Not only does it point us in a helpful direction when making a decision to maximize our health or happiness, but it eliminates the stress and confusion that can come with too many options. For example, if I choose one of the forty jams available to me at a store and feel satisfied with my choice, will a part of me still wonder if I made the best choice--did I choose the healthiest option? The most cost effective? The tastiest? Choice architecture and libertarian paternalism create a path where these doubts can be eliminated and someone can live their life feeling satisfied with the choices they've made. What is offered is not only a way to live the best life one can, but also a way to receive some peace of mind.


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