April 12th, 2012
03:30 PM ET

The trouble with libertarian paternalism

Editor's Note: Raghuram Rajan, a former chief economist of the IMF, is Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and the author of Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World EconomyFor more, visit Project Syndicate's website, or check it out on Facebook and Twitter.

By Raghuram Rajan, Project Syndicate

There are many arguments against government paternalism: apart from limiting individual choice (for example, the choice to remain uninsured in the current health-care debate in the United States) and preventing individuals from learning, history suggests time and again that the conventional wisdom prevalent in society is wrong. And, since governments typically try to enforce the conventional wisdom, the consequences could be disastrous, because they are magnified by the state’s coordinating – and coercive – power.

A clear example is financial regulation, which in many ways is a form of paternalism. In the US, the low risk assigned to senior tranches of mortgage-backed securities made them attractive instruments for banks to hold, given the relatively high return they offered. But they proved far from safe, despite the prior conventional wisdom. And, because the regulator had pronounced them safe, far too many banks overloaded on them, rendering them even more risky when the banks tried to sell them at the same time.

Other examples of the danger of the coordinating power of government paternalism abound. As I drive to downtown Chicago, I pass a series of high-rise housing projects, meant in their time to be the miracle cure for homelessness, poverty, unemployment, and crime. Today, they are seen as the best way to concentrate and perpetuate many of those ills.

Not only were the housing projects kept a safe distance from areas that had good jobs, but, with few residents experiencing stable families and livelihoods, there were not enough local examples of success to guide young people. As a result, many went astray.

The fashion today is to integrate poor households into flourishing communities. No doubt we will discover some unintended consequences in the future, and the power of government coordination will ensure that those consequences are widespread.

But some amount of paternalism is necessary in civilized societies. Social security is a paternalistic form of forced savings for old age, preventing individuals from consuming and saving as they please. It exists, in part, because individuals know that civilized societies will never stand by and watch the elderly starve. So individuals are forced to save in order to prevent them from gaming the system – not saving when young, knowing that they will be assured a minimum level of support by a humane society when old. Similarly, the mandated purchase of insurance in the Obama administration’s health-care bill is an attempt to prevent the young and the healthy from remaining uninsured and turning to the government for support only when they discover that they need it.

So, if paternalism has benefits as well as costs, how do we get the former without the latter? My colleague, Richard Thaler, along with Cass Sunstein, who currently serves in the Obama administration, wrote a best-selling book, Nudge, in which they suggest a way to reduce our uneasiness with paternalism. Essentially, by exploiting behavioral quirks, they would nudge people into making decisions that are good for them, even while individuals have complete freedom to change their mind. So libertarian paternalism, in their view, eliminates one of the main objections to paternalism – that it constrains individual choice.

For example, in deciding how their pension savings will be allocated, most people simply choose the default option in their employer-offered plan. Often, the default option is unsuitable for most individuals – for instance, it typically allocates all savings to low-return money-market funds. Sunstein and Thaler would have the employer choose a default option that works for most people, such as 60% in equities, 30% in bonds, and 10% in money-market funds.

That is the paternalistic part. The libertarian part is that the employee has the right to opt out of the default option. Because people rarely move away from the default option, the employer’s paternalistic choice prevails, and we get libertarian paternalism. What is not to like?

The problem is that the semblance of choice in libertarian paternalism is an illusion. Choice remains unexercised, because individuals do not consciously think through their decision. If their choices can be directed, is this not paternalism plain and simple, rendered more sinister because individuals are unaware that they are being nudged, and cannot raise their guard?

One response is to point out that most plans already have a default option that determines savings allocations. Sunstein and Thaler merely say that the default option should be set in a way that is good for people, and clearly they have an idea of what is good.

This, then, is the nub of the problem. In choosing the default option, the government or the employer nudges all employees into prevailing fads such as “buy equity for the long run.” This, they believe, is better than the current typical default option of putting individuals’ money into money-market funds. But it may be worse: coordinating everyone into risky asset investments may be more dangerous than coordinating them into boring investments like money-market funds.

Could there be a better alternative? What if there were no default option, and individuals were sent repeated, and increasingly urgent, reminders to choose an allocation if they did not choose one already. The conventional wisdom could be offered as a recommendation, along with explanations of why it makes sense, but it would not be the default. This would force people to exercise choice. Some people would differ from the conventional wisdom, benefiting the system by introducing some variety and resilience.

More generally, the flaw in some forms of libertarian paternalism is that the free choice that it appears to offer leaves the paternalism largely unconstrained. Would it not be far better to force conscious choice in order to limit the consequences of paternalistic mistakes?

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Raghuram Rajan.

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Topics: Perspectives

soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. deep blue

    Perfect government public policy is setting up a system with a perfect point of stability that the system selects and maintains without government interference. This perfection, like most perfect systems, is sadly not achievable, but the concept is beautiful.

    Creepy rant over. I'm going to go back to analyzing an imperfect op amp design.

    April 12, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    According to the Founding Fathers, paternalism was necessary, as the masses would feel lost without guidance and would be capable of making silly mistakes.

    April 13, 2012 at 7:11 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      "Founding Fathers" of Iran, Iraq, Syria...?
      Most people do not need to quote their sources because they expound opinions.
      You are making a statement that needs a source.

      April 13, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Reply
  3. Editor

    Thanks for the article. For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues, please see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization @ http://​www.Libertarian-Internation​al.org

    April 13, 2012 at 11:34 am | Reply
  4. pmcdonald

    Ragurajam seems to have a very narrow technically focused and ideologically biased education. The most dangerous sort of economist. Often wrong and always unaware of why his ideas have unintended consequences. There are schools of thought that know why Ragurajam gets this so badly wrong so often. He needs at least some background in political science to talk about political science issues.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Reply
  5. daniel kim

    Immigrants like "professor" rajan, from filthy greedy rich versus the majority poor in India are the same overpaid tenured people in overpriced colleges like Univ of Chicago taking the jobs away from Americans and conspired with Wall Street, military weapons and oil barrons and yet has the audacity to complain too much focus is spent on funding and hiring teachers!!!

    It is the Iraq-Afghanistan wars, Defence and Veteran Affairs departments that cost $10 trillions that ballooned our national debt to $15 trillion and NOT paternalism or spending on educating and helping the disabled, poor and working class!!!! Even computer majors are discouraged not only in America but Asia because the finance industry is overpaying their greedy fraudsters manipulating the currency, interest rates and off course, CDOs bundling subprimed mortgages that made them trillions and yet no criminal charges have been brought to jail banks and hedgefunds like Chase Jaime Dimond, ex-Countrywide and BoA CEOs, etc!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    July 7, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Reply
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