But Harford seems to think these schemes are a perversion of Sunstein & Thaler’s concept of libertarian paternalism: “Some of this is good policy, some is bad policy, some is old-fashioned posturing and none of it has anything to do with libertarian paternalism.”
Sadly, not so. Sunstein & Thaler’s “libertarian paternalism” has been an expansive notion from the very beginning. In their published works on the subject, S&T refuse to draw a clear distinction between public and private action, or between consent and coercion. As a result, they reach the conclusion that there is no line between softer and harder forms of paternalism:
But in all cases, a real question is the cost of exercising choice, and here there is a continuum rather than a sharp dichotomy. ... [A] libertarian paternalist who is especially confident of his welfare judgments would be willing to impose real costs on workers and consumers who seek to do what, in the paternalist’s view, would not be in their best interests. (p. 1185-86)In short, even if S&T don’t particularly like the policies currently being advanced by the British government, they would have to admit such policies fall within the “libertarian paternalist” schema.
And it was entirely predictable that politicians and interest groups would take the concept and run. The notion of libertarian paternalism is inherently slippery, and its creators and initial advocates should not be surprised to see it slip through their hands.