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Supernanny Cass Sunstein’s ‘Friendly Paternalism’: It’s For Your Own Good, America

Written By : Warner Todd Huston
April 12, 2013

Cass Sunsetein, one of President Obama’s leading left-wing, university eggheads, has penned an interesting piece in New Republic explaining how the nanny state is really a very important and useful aspect of today’s modern Democrat scheme. It’s for your own good, don’t you know?

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Launching his April 8 piece, “Why Paternalism Is Your Friend,” Sunstein evokes New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (mostly failed, not that Sunstein says so) nanny state efforts to take away his constituents’ freedom on such things as trans fats, sodas, and guns. Sunstein points out that to his mind, all this “paternalism” isn’t so bad after all. Throughout his piece Sunstein eschews nannyism for “paternalism” because it sounds nicer, of course. Optics, you know?

As an example of useful paternalism, Sunstein praises Obama’s demand that the auto industry once again up its CAFE standards saying that the new requirements would “save money” for everyone and “who could be outraged by that”? Naturally Sunstein simply accepts Obama’s pie-in-the-sky claims and simply assumes the new standards will actually have the impact Obama claims it will.

Sunstein ignores the fact that in many cases the technology doesn’t even yet exist to satisfy Obama’s draconian fuel economy demands. He also ignores many other facts. Such as the fact that one of the easier ways to achieve the new standards is to make smaller, lighter, and more dangerous vehicles. Americans would end up with tiny cars that go slower and have less resistance to accidents making drivers and passengers less safe on the road. Should people be outraged about that, Mr. Sunstein? In his zeal to give Obama all credit, Sunstein apparently doesn’t think so.

And let’s not even speak of how higher CAFE standards don’t really have any positive effect on actual usage of gasoline–as in bringing usage down like Obama wants. Economists have found that when gas is cheaper or takes up less of a consumer’s pay check, he will often use more of it, not less. So, often higher energy efficiency means drivers will drive more often because they feel they aren’t spending as much on gas as they once were. Economists call this the Jevons Paradox.

Sunstein then makes to define our terms for us. “Paternalism comes in a lot of shapes and sizes,” Sunstein tells us before making the attempt. Oddly, he uses the example of a GPS and claims that such a tool is “paternalistic.”

“Means paternalism is like a GPS. You can ignore what the GPS says and try your own route, but if you do so, there is a serious risk that you will get lost,” Sunstein claims.

It is very quixotic to claim that a map–which is all a GPS system really is–is a form of paternalism. Maps are not foisted upon us by government agencies, or others in positions of power. They are just tools that we can use or not at our own discretion. A mere tool is not really a “paternalistic” device.

Sunstein goes on to define his other version of paternalism as “ends paternalism,” the act of government forcing its will on consumers. “Ends paternalists have more ambitious goals,” Sunstein affirms.

From here Sunstein devotes a few paragraphs to the well-worn discussion of paternalism, choices, the economy and the free market, and people’s freedom to choose compared to what is actually best for their own welfare–the latter two being not necessarily one and the same.

The interesting thing is that Sunstein repeatedly returns to praise Obama’s new fiat CAFE standard rules. By the time one is half way through his essay, one would be excused for having suspicions that flogging Obama’s new fuel economy rules is really one of the motivations for this piece.

Still, Sunstein makes all the perfectly reasonable points in the debate on whether or not government-sponsored paternalism is a good thing, when it isn’t, and why people think so. We all know that some form of paternalism, widely defined, is good for society at large and Sunstein hastens to point that out.

Rules of the road, for instance, are a form of nanny state paternalism. As free citizens we are not permitted to drive just any old way we want to. We have to observe government-sponsored driving rules. This is good for society as it helps keep us safer on the roads. So too are rules for food safety, business sales and advertising practices, even criminal laws. These things are all top-down rules imposed on us by government meant to keep society humming along in an orderly fashion. Few people could object to the assumption that government has a role in this area.

So, what is Sunstein’s point in all this, then? It is wrapped up in his last paragraph (my bold).

No one should deny that freedom of choice is a central part of a good life. Paternalism can be a serious mistake, especially if it eliminates that form of freedom and overrides people’s judgments about their own ends. Education, warnings, and other nudges usually have big advantages over mandates and bans, precisely because they allow people to go their own way. But legitimate concerns about illegitimate paternalism should not be allowed to prevent officials from seeking to identify the best ways to improve people’s lives, even if they end up influencing people’s choices.

The point, dear reader, for this apologia for Bloomberg nanny-statism, is that we must not let the fact that government has in too many ways become an oppressive, un-American institution bent on cradle-to-the-grave control of every second of our lives get in the way of more of the same. And we must turn in our God-given, natural-born liberty cards and allow those smarter than we–those like Obama and Sunstein–have a free hand to dabble.

After all, it’s for our own good.

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