Conservatives usually abhor any sort of government-sponsored paternalism. Some conservatives have recently advocated for a more mild form of paternalism, called soft paternalism. They argue that since the government apparatus to influence social norms exists, it should be used to promote conservative values. While this seems attractive, several problems should make it anathema to conservatives.
Active manipulation of cognitive distortions in order to influence habits (a.k.a. soft paternalism or nudging) is not the proper role of government. Our Founding Fathers formed the United States government on the liberal tradition, the norm that conservatives have historically championed above all others. For our forefathers, to be liberal meant treating citizens equally. It demanded a government limited in its ability to promote certain lifestyles, and therefore unable to arbitrate on fiercely contested matters like religion or how to raise children. To nudge is to push others in a direction the powerful deem is worthy—not because it is objectively so—exactly what our Founders aimed to avoid.
Nudging is also unconstitutional. Many argue that there are powerful ways to influence social norms, which is useful to encourage conservative principles like thrift and diligence. However, the same people don’t ask on what authority those changes are made. Nowhere does the Constitution bestow on bureaucrats the ability to nudge us towards certain lifestyles.
Soft paternalism assumes people don’t know or are too feeble to pursue their best interest and that parental government betters them. Quite contrarily, conservatism prioritizes self mastery and presumes people can successfully choose how to live their lives. Conservatives believe man is a creative, impressive creature, not chattel to be led around as a beast or slave. We see this assumption echoed in federalist principles and ideas like rugged individualism. Furthermore, as Jon Coppage stated, through soft paternalism people lose the ability to judge among alternatives as complacency sets in. Good judgment is a vital component of self government, and as it atrophies, so does the ability of the electorate to make more important decisions.
Conservatives argue that because government is inefficient, it should be made smaller. They argue that bureaucracy is clumsy, costly, and counterproductive. They recognize human fallibility and the ineptitude of attempts to create utopia on earth that generate troubling unintended consequences. It is unclear why pro-nudge conservatives believe they will do better.
Any use of the nudging apparatus will alienate many from conservative political parties. This is especially true of those attracted to conservatism because of their recognition of the importance of any of the above, including liberalism, equality, the Constitution, self mastery, and the inefficiency of government. For example, to embrace nudging will lose conservatives’ high ground to claim other government acts are unconstitutional, as well as voters concerned with the legitimacy of public policy
Moreover, it will be difficult for conservatives to agree on values towards which bureaucrats should nudge. There are many flavors of conservative. Even when there is agreement on material ends, there are trade-offs among those ends. For instance, some conservatives prioritize family life while others concentrate on economic growth. As nudges to encourage diligence result in neglect of family life, how will conservative bureaucrats decide which balance to strike?
Finally, even disregarding all of the above, soft paternalism applied under a conservative administration is unlikely to promote conservative values. Politicians suffer the same behavioral biases as everyone else, so they prioritize election wins over the long-term welfare of the nation. Consequently, nudges are more likely to promote ends of rent seekers rather than conservative values.
Soft paternalism is diametrically opposed to conservative principles and is unlikely to have the results its conservative supporters suggest. Where a nudging apparatus exists, conservatives would do better to exert their energy dismantling it. In this way, conservatives can remain consistent and avoid the unintended consequences inextricable from increased government power.
Stephanie Rugolo is the editor of The Rugolo Report and holds an M.A. from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire