Ethical Libertarian Paternalism

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What is libertarian paternalism?

Libertarian paternalism, championed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, is a principle that strives to promote good decision-making in areas where people tend to behave in irrational ways—more concisely, in ways that do not align with their interests. This theory distinguishes itself from traditional ‘hard’ paternalism by its relatively unobtrusive methodology. Instead of seeking to influence people’s choices themselves, Thaler and Sunstein advocate for intentional manipulation of the ‘choice structure’. Some examples of this manipulation, also known as ‘nudging’, may include reordering options in a list, strategically positioning items on a shelf, or altering the relative visibility of products in a storefront.

A classic example of libertarian paternalism is the case of the school cafeteria. This cafeteria offers several options. Some are healthy, like apples, while some are unhealthy, like Twinkies. With this in mind, the
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Millions of people make the decision to smoke cigarettes every day, despite being well-informed that the practice is extremely detrimental to their health. Additionally, based on the abundance of products designed to help people quit smoking, it is clear that many smokers view cigarettes as a bad habit. From a policymaking standpoint, it is unambiguous that smoking cigarettes is a poor decision that many would prefer not to make.

Moreover, we can safely assume that smokers, like everyone else, value their health as an intrinsic good. Thus, good health can be assumed to be a universal interest that smokers are interested in pursuing. If we restrict the use of libertarian paternalist strategies to cases like cigarette smoking, where people’s decisions undoubtedly conflict with universal values, we will be able to justly promote good decision-making while minimizing the risk of ‘miscalculating
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