In Britain, Brown's take on organ donation boosts new credo
Libertarian paternalism – 'framing' choices for people, but letting them opt out – is gaining traction among US and European leaders.
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On gambling, two US states have deployed a similar technique, by encouraging problem gamblers to sign up to voluntary schemes that forbid them from entering casinos. More than 10,000 have signed up in Missouri alone.Skip to next paragraph
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As for food, two of the earliest proponents of libertarian paternalism, the Chicago-based economists Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, argued that consumer decisions could be influenced by the position of food in a hypothetical cafeteria. Make the fruit more prominent than the ice cream, they said, and people will eat better.
Other experts in different fields see potential for changing behavior for the "better" by altering the default. Take carbon offsetting. Currently it's an option: you take a flight, and if you're feeling green or concerned about climate change, you might tick the box to pay a little extra to offset the greenhouse gases emitted by the plane. But if the default was buying the offset, and you had to tick the box to opt out, uptake would be far greater, argues Simon Retallack, a London-based environmental expert. "Research says the public are much more likely to go along with offsetting if it's assumed they will offset but can opt out if they don't want to," he says.
Yet those concerned about individual freedom see problems with this kind of paternalism.
Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat in British Parliament, says people should be left to make judgments themselves, and worries that if people are signed up for things unawares "then that undermines their freedom in a way that would be unacceptable."
AC Grayling, a philosophy professor at London's Birkbeck college, says that the general principle that the state must protect the liberty of the individual is at risk. "The thought that there is one imposable conception of a good life which the state knows and wants to impose is inimical to that great principle," he argues.
Prof. Robert Sugden, an economist from the University of East Anglia in England, worries that the idea "presupposes that the state has a better view than individuals" and says the era when people happily trusted government officials to know what is best for them is over.
"I think it's an idea whose time has passed," he says. "What are the restrictions that people will genuinely choose for themselves, where they really want government to intervene to protect them? My view is that there are many fewer of these than libertarian paternalists think."