Libertarian Paternalism: Helping Guide People in the Right Direction

Libertarian Paternalism: Helping Guide People in the Right Direction

Libertarian paternalism captures the combination of behavioral economics and paternalistic guidance.  Thaler and Sunstein define libertarian paternalism as guiding people to make an ideal decision without coercion or force.  A shortcoming of this concept is that many people falsely assume: 1.) there are viable alternatives to paternalism and 2.) paternalism always involves coercion (Thaler, Sunstein 386).  In the following paragraphs, I am going to refute these assumptions with demonstrations of necessary paternalism.

Firstly, libertarian paternalism can be well portrayed in the example created by Thaler and Sunstein in Behavioral Economics, Public Policy, And Paternalism: Libertarian Paternalism.  In summary, a cafeteria director realized that the order in which his food was arranged influenced consumer decisions.  So, what should the director do in order to change this problem?  This is when the concept of paternalism comes into play.  He could arrange the food so the healthiest options are more likely to be chosen, he could do the exact opposite, or he could choose randomly.  The director clearly has to make a choice here, so there are no other viable alternatives to paternalism.  Also, the director choosing the first option makes the consumers better off, without actually forcing any change in behavior (Thaler and Sunstein, 386).  Therefore, both false assumptions are not applicable to this situation.

Another example of libertarian paternalism is the program; Weight Watchers, which helps overweight people shed pounds and become healthier versions of them selves.  Occasionally, caring family members sign an unhealthy member up for Weight Watchers without their actual consent.  Does this constitute coercion or libertarian paternalism?  I believe signing up a family member in need does not constitute coercion, because they stand the right to refuse service and Weight Watchers would only make the subject better off.  If the subject is at risk for heart disease due to his/her obesity, then there are no viable alternatives and both false assumptions can be refuted yet again.

Finally, the concept of libertarian paternalism is directly correlated to many of the extreme medical dilemmas we have discussed in class.  For example, the earlier discussion of autonomous patients who are unsure if they want to proceed with treatment correlates to a physician’s usage of libertarian paternalism (Brody and Englehardt, 285).  Since the physician has the patient’s best interest in mind and cannot use coercion, (at least in fully autonomous situations) he might try to lead the patient in the most beneficial direction.  Also, when a patient is on his/her deathbed, there are normally no other viable options; therefore, disproving the false assumptions.

Overall, libertarian paternalism should not be immediately viewed as coercive and not allowing for individuality.  The previous three examples demonstrated a non-forceful, paternalistic approach with no other viable options; therefore, I think libertarian paternalism is necessary in many situations.

Works Cited:

1.)    Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein. “Behavioral Economics, Public Policy, And Paternalism: Libertarian Paternalism.” Arguing about Bioethics. By Stephen Holland. London: Routledge, 2012. 386. Print.

2.)    Brody, Baruch, and Tristram Englehardt. “ReservesDirect Login.” ReservesDirect Login. Prentice-Hall, 1987. Web. 24 Mar. 2014. <>. 285.

7 thoughts on “Libertarian Paternalism: Helping Guide People in the Right Direction

  1. I like your Weight Watchers example. I didn’t really consider the act of volunteering people for something or enrolling them in some program without their expressed wishes. This is exactly the kind of paternalism discussed in the article because the person still maintains complete control in the situation and can very easily turn down the offer of volunteering or participating in the program, as you said. Just like in the cafeteria example, people have complete control over which foods they choose. I think this article provides really good evidence that paternalism is both inevitable and necessary at times!

  2. I think you have used some easily understandable examples that really support your argument. Paternalism is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the person still remains autonomous and can simply use newly acquired information to make a better decision for themselves. While no one is forcing them, the proper information and presentation can encourage behavior change and increase healthy decision making.

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