How far should we go to stop people doing something that's bad for them?
We know cigarettes are very likely to cause you serious illness and could even kill you. The tricky thing is many people find them extremely enjoyable and they're perfectly legal. The government, frustrated that some people still persist in choosing to exercise their right to pursue a perfectly legal activity, despite decades of health education, bans on advertising and smoking in public places, are looking at forcing tobacco manufacturers to sell cigarettes in plain packaging.
The problem is that all those people exercising their freedom to smoke are then clogging up the NHS demanding that the rest of us pay for the treatment of their self inflicted illnesses. It's a question not just for smokers. How do you feel about a fat tax, or a minimum price for alcohol?
Tax is a bit of a blunt instrument and unpopular with voters, so it's not surprising that politicians have latched on to "nudge economics". Behind the doors of Number 10 there's a unit called The Behavioural Insight Team that talks about finding intelligent ways to encourage people to make better choices for themselves.
Is this an example of paternalist libertarianism - preserving people's freedoms while at the same time minimising their impact on the wider society? Or a worrying Orwellian development where politicians have given up trying to win the political argument and have instead just resorted to employing teams of psychologists and marketing executives to manipulate our behaviour?
If we're too stupid for our own good, why should we worry if politics becomes the equivalent of potty training? How far should we go to stop people doing something that's bad for them?
Expect plain packaging, smoking bans, temperance crusaders and other frequent offenders from this blog to get a mention.
I discussed libertarian paternalism in Chapter 14 of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist and also in the review of Nudge I wrote back in August. From the latter:
If politicians stuck to both the spirit and the letter of Thaler and Sunstein's philosophy, the nudge agenda would be largely benign and almost certainly beneficial. Far from supporting the kind of policies being pursued by the UK Faculty of Health, any British government that was genuinely committed to the Nudge agenda would have no choice but to repeal whole swaths of legislation that already cross the line between libertarianism and paternalism.