Monday, May 23, 2005

A Libertarian Paternalist's Dream World

I wrote recently -- and unadmiringly -- of libertarian paternalism. What is it? It's a "brave new world" in which corporations, acting at the behest of the state, dictate our choices -- for our own good of course:
The underlying notion is that people don't always choose what's "best" for themselves. Best according to whom? According to libertarian paternalists, of course, who tend to equate "best" with wealth maximization. They simply disregard or dismiss the truly rational preferences of those who must live with the consequences of their decisions. Richard Thaler [an economist who is a leading proponent of libertarian paternalism] may want you to save your money when you're only 22, but you may have other things to do with your money, such as paying off a college loan.
A libertarian paternalist who isn't fixated on wealth maximization might prefer the European model, in which the state dictates the amount of leisure one should enjoy. As Chris Bickerton, writing at spiked, explains:
The 'European social model' serves to rationalise low growth through the prism of individual wellbeing. In reality, this means that the cost of low growth is paid by Europe's working population. Governments that find it politically expedient to promote policies for tackling unemployment do so by reducing working hours by diktat and forcing through moderated wage claims or even wage freezes. They get away with this because of the demonisation of growth and productivity as social goals.

Faced with this situation, we should refuse to accept that work can only be conceived of as a limitation to the development of human capabilities. We should also refuse to accept the idea that the path to human happiness is through idleness. Contrary to what Jeremy Rifkin [author of the wrongheaded The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream] might think, our modern world is about something more than the number of weeks' holiday we get each year.
Bickerton, a PhD student in international politics at St John's College, Oxford, has a much firmer grasp of reality than do economics professor Richard Thaler and his statist collaborator, law professor Cass Sunstein.

It's true that happiness, for many of us, is about more than wealth maximization. But if wealth maximization makes you happy, you have a better chance of attaining nirvana in the U.S. than in Europe. Not because of libertarian paternalists, but because the choice between wealth and leisure is yours to make (for now). Liberty is all about choice, not about being forced to make the "right" choice by libertarian paternalists.