Tim Harford on libertarian paternalism

He sums it up perfectly - yes, the research is valid, no, the fact that you can still opt-out does not make government intervention "libertarian", but hey, in the end, at least it's better than the nanny state.

Libertarian paternalism makes some sense because we make different decisions in the short term than in the long term. You flush the cigarettes down the lavatory, vowing not to make a widow of your spouse and, before you know it, you have popped out to the corner shop to buy another pack of Marlboros. Who could not sympathise with your better, more patient self’s desire to quit? If Prof Le Grand gets his way, it could not be easier for the state to help. Just rip up your smoker’s card. If you do not want to quit, that is your choice – hold on to the permit.


But hang on. My choice of film should be no business of the government. That is true whether I am a hyper-rational utility-maximising agent or whether I am a weak-willed creature of flesh and blood. The word “libertarian” is being used carelessly here. Libertarianism is not a statement about a free choice between salty and salt-free food. Libertarianism is a philosophy that states that the government should keep its nose out of my affairs unless I invite it to get stuck in.


The British government has already banned smoking in private clubs populated only by consenting adults. It is also confused over the difference between global warming, which is the result of a collective- action problem, and obesity, which is not. The choice is not, it seems, between freedom and libertarian paternalism. It is between libertarian paternalism and the Supernanny state.

This is from Tim's new blog.

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