Prof. Brown was at a conference and I was home sick. So the class had a discussion on its own.
I would have started things off by defining libertarian paternalism and comparing it with other sorts of paternalism. So here, for instance, is the opening section from my notes.
“Paternalism” is interference with a person’s decisions for the sake of that person’s well-being. The best cases for paternalistic intervention are when decisions are malformed:
adaption to oppressive conditions or
incapacity to appreciate or act on one’s own interests (mental illness, addictions, e.g.)
Their point is that our preferences are pervasively structured by factors outside of our appreciation and control. To offset this, they recommend a greater role for what they call choice architects. Choice architects provide context for others’ decisions, whether they want to or not.
Sunstein and Thaler claim that they should be aware of playing this role and that they should think paternalistically. But it’s “libertarian” paternalism, meaning that while the aim is to get people to make better choices, the means used can’t foreclose choice. So there are no requirements, but just attempts to alter the circumstances in which choices are made.
Specifically, according to Thaler and Sunstein, libertarian paternalism means that (1) “in general, people should be free to do what they like—and to opt out of undesirable arrangements if they want to do so”; choices should not be “blocked, fenced off, or significantly burdened.” And (2) “it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better. … a policy is ‘paternalistic’ if it tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves.” (p. 5)
They call the sorts of interference that they advocate “nudges.” A nudge is defined as “any factor that significantly alters the behavior of Humans, even though it would be ignored by Econs” (p. 8). (The terms “humans” and “econs” are discussed in the early parts of the book.)