Philip Pillkington: Libertarian Paternalism is Clearly an Oxymoron

By Philip Pilkington, a writer and research assistant at Kingston University in London. You can follow him on Twitter @pilkingtonphil. Cross posted from Fixing the Economists


“Blackwhite…this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink.”

— George Orwell, 1984

“Hey, look, I’m not racist but…”. You just know that this statement is likely to be followed by a racist comment of some sort, right? Well, what about the statement — issued in the title of a paper — that libertarian paternalism is not an oxymoron. Yeah, you’re probably going to think that what is likely to follow is going to be oxymoronic and poorly argued.

Well, you’d be right. But even the term itself — “libertarian paternalism” — is so obviously a perversion of language that it should be immediately confined to the dustbin of duoblethink words along with “blackwhite” and “goodbad”. What the coiners of the term have done is fuse together two words that are mutually contradictory. In doing so they seek to obfuscate thinking and confuse people.

Don’t get me wrong. Politically and economically I’m very sympathetic to the argument put forward by the so-called “libertarian paternalists”. I certainly think that state intervention is a necessity in a modern economy; I certainly think that people do not always act in their own self-interest; and I fully agree that the less encroachment upon personal freedom that the state has to engage in to achieve the best results the better. But this does not excuse nonsense. We do not need to pervert language and reason to make this case.

Here is the basic argument as laid out in Sunstein and Thaler’s paper Libertarian Paternalism is Not an Oxymoron,

We elaborate a form of paternalism, libertarian in spirit, that should be acceptable to those who are firmly committed to freedom of choice on grounds of either autonomy or welfare. Indeed, we urge that libertarian paternalism provides a basis for both understanding and rethinking a number of areas of contemporary law, including those aspects that deal with worker welfare, consumer protection, and the family. In the process of defending these claims, we intend to make some objections to widely held beliefs about both freedom of choice and paternalism. Our emphasis is on the fact that in many domains, people lack clear, stable, or well-ordered preferences. What they choose is a product of framing effects, starting points, and default rules, leaving the very meaning of the term “preferences” unclear.

The substance of the above quote is actually true. When scrutinised in any meaningful way so-called ‘preferences’ in marginalist economics are fairly meaningless. Human beings are not robots and their decisions are usually made under the substantial weight of ‘framing’ and subject to all sorts of biases and blindnesses. Put more simply: sometimes people don’t make very good decisions.

The idea of the self-proclaimed libertarian paternalists then becomes to ‘nudge’ people to make good decisions but give them an opt-out clause so that the choice is not forced upon them. Basically, the idea is to use the superior intelligence of the policymakers to trick people into doing what the policymaker thinks will best ensure the welfare of both the few and the many. Advertisers have been doing this for years, as have many other in the public relations industry.

You see, the problem with this argument is that it basically doesn’t want to recognise that while such ‘soft paternalism’ — let’s not delude ourselves with terms like ‘libertarian paternalism’ — is undoubtedly preferable to ‘hard paternalism’ it is only sometimes adequate. Economic policymakers often have to confront decisions that they must make that will have very ‘hard paternalistic’ outcomes.

For example, if your country was facing down a massive speculative attack on the currency it would be likely a good idea to counteract this with capital controls. These would limit the freedom of people to move money in and out of the country and this would likely be very unpopular. The inflation that would result without these controls, however, would provoke far more damage and would ultimately be much more unpopular.

The same case can be made with respect to almost all economic policies: from interest rates, to the taxation and spending system, to the minimum wage. Even policies with a substantial component of free choice — like the MMT Job Guarantee which offers anyone willing and able to work a job at a set rate — has a ‘hard paternalistic’ element to it in that we know that this will likely increase worker bargaining power and put upward pressure on wages. Many of us may like this outcome but we should recognise that it is coercive on certain groups.

Look, the libertarian paradigm is ridiculous. It rests on the idea that people exist as atoms in a world where each atom has no effects on other atoms except through completely free contractual arrangements. As a starting premise for a political philosophy this should be ridiculous to anyone who is not completely mentally insulated from the world around them. What such fantasies then generate is the obverse nonsense that any form of paternalism by the state is basically as bad as a forced labour camp or something similar.

This rubbish is propaganda, of course. It persuades people by framing issues in a certain way and appealing to primitive emotions. Ironically, it is a manifestation of precisely the sort of ‘nudging’ or ‘soft paternalism’ that Sunstein and Thaler advocate — and that the libertarians claim to hate. In short, anyone who buys such primitive arguments is the very rube that the soft paternalistic professions like advertisers, political strategists and public relations people target.

Just dump the libertarian stuff. Sensible people will recognise that we should try to maximise individual freedom unless this is not possible given a certain set of circumstances. The libertarian rubes — numbed as they are through the propaganda they are spoon-fed — will always paint these people as tyrants. But no matter. It’s better to keep our language and our reason intact than to try to appeal to people who are clearly brainwashed by using doublethink-oriented brainwashing techniques.

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  1. Chris

    Even policies with a substantial component of free choice — like the MMT Job Guarantee which offers anyone willing and able to work a job at a set rate — has a ‘hard paternalistic’ element to it in that we know that this will likely increase worker bargaining power and put upward pressure on wages. Many of us may like this outcome but we should recognise that it is coercive on certain groups.

    I don’t understand what is coercive about this, unless of course you think that “wage slaves” are literally the property of their employers.

      1. scraping_by

        That part of the population that would like to push wages down to zero, or perhaps even negative rates. The ideal employer, according to current business school and mainstream economic thought.

        1. Chris

          Still, how is that coercive? They might *like* to push wages down to zero, but unless they have a *right* to push wages down to zero (i.e. unless their employees really are slaves) preventing them from doing so does not violate their rights.

      2. Chris

        Coercion = rights violation. What right does ‘part of the population’ have that is violated by not getting its preferred inflation rate?

    1. jrs

      In the same way that high unemployment that puts downward pressure on wages is coercive to certain groups right?

      1. Chris

        In my opinion, high unemployment and downward pressure on wages are symptoms of coercion rather than coercive in their own right. Look at 3rd world sweatshops – the majority of sweatshop owners do not kidnap their workers and chain them to their workbenches. They don’t have to because land grabs prevent workers from being self-sufficient, corrupt politicians and police prevent them from organising trade unions to negotiate higher wages and also stop them setting up their own businesses, and xenophobic nationalists in the West prevent them from moving to where conditions are better. The only remaining alternatives are work in a sweatshop or starve. Sweatshop conditions are symptoms of a wider problem and the same, albeit to a lesser degree, applies to much low-wage work in developed nations.

  2. F. Beard

    I certainly think that state intervention is a necessity in a modern economy; Philip P

    Actually, it is government-backing for the banks that is the cause of so much instability and injustice. Eliminate that and far less other state intervention would be needed. Example: Government deposit insurance and the lack of a convenient Postal Savings Service plus a legal tender lender of last resort leaves the banks and credit unions virtually immune to bank runs since physical cash is too risky and inconvenient to use for much. But bank runs are GOOD since they force banks to be far more concerned about how much they dare leverage.

    It’s called elegance. Otoh, Progressives seem to prefer kludges where one “solution” causes problems that require other “solutions”, ad infinitum . That is so immature, at best. The difference between a craftsman and a hack is that when a craftsman fixes something it stays fixed and without causing any more problems.

    1. Ben Johannson

      “But bank runs are GOOD since they force banks to be far more concerned about how much they dare leverage.”

      Sure, the bank runs of the 19th Century which resulted in economic contractions in the 20-30% range were just swell for the people starving in the gutters.

      Oh, you’re saying they don’t count. Gotcha.

      1. F. Beard

        What were people doing in the banks anyway instead of a Postal Savings Service for the risk-free storage and transactions with their fiat? Huh?

        Banks should ONLY be for 100% voluntary depositors and they should be 100% private. To put it in Biblical terms, fiat is Caesar’s money and ONLY Caesar should provide a risk-free storage and transaction service for it.

        1. F. Beard

          fiat is Caesar’s money and ONLY Caesar should provide a risk-free storage and transaction service for it. FB (moi)

          Otherwise we have a fascist (government for the rich and/or special interests instead of for the general welfare) money system and that’s what we have. One need not look much further for the source of unjust income and wealth disparity.

      2. scraping_by

        Bank runs were normally caused by bank fraud, or the rumor of bank fraud.

        If somebody would guarantee the deposits, and prosecute bankers who stole deposits, then maybe the depositors would avoid running the bank. Someone like a government.

        1. F. Beard

          Bank runs were normally caused by bank fraud, or the rumor of bank fraud. scraping_by

          Banks are inherently fraudulent because they typically CANNOT redeem ALL their demand deposits simultaneously. But demand means on demand = “I want my money NOW, not when and if you can sell some assets!”

          Common stock as private money, otoh, is normally NOT redeemable so bank runs are not an issue.

          Hint: Scrupulous honesty is an amazing guide to the ethics of money creation as Is the Torah.

      3. F. Beard

        were just swell for the people starving in the gutters.

        Common stock as private money should be economically stable since deflation is not built-in (since it is spent, not lent, into existence) and because price inflation is under the control of the only people necessarily affected by it – the owners of the issuing company since every accepter of a common stock money instantly becomes a part-owner of the issuing company..

      1. mansoor h. khan

        j gibbs,

        Absentee ownership is not the problem. F. Beard is correct due to facism (government support to the banking cartel via lender of last resort and via deposit insurance and via outright bailouts) the interest rate paid by borrowers is extremely subsidized and way too low.

        If businesses had to truly borrow at honest interest rates businesses would be much, much, much more willing to give equity to employees as compensation since cash would be too expensive to borrow interest rate wise to fund growth.

        Also, Ben Johnson in the above comment said:

        “Sure, the bank runs of the 19th Century which resulted in economic contractions in the 20-30% range were just swell for the people starving in the gutters.

        Oh, you’re saying they don’t count. Gotcha.”

        The ultimate solution is jail sentences for lending money with interest since even without being aided and abetted by government usurers (in biblical sense and Quranic sense) still will do plenty of damage to society and economy via bank blow-ups which will cause massive deflation.

        The complete answer is: Punish lending of money with interest.

        Mansoor H. Khan

          1. mansoor h. khan


            Those two (artificially cheap money/credit due gov support of creditors and extreme ownership ratios) are highly related. One magnifies the other!

            And of course it hurts even the rich when depressions deepen and destabilize society.

            Usury is a bad idea all around. That is why the bible and the quran forbid it!

            Mansoor H. Khan

        1. j gibbs

          Absentee ownership is Veblen’s name for the business system of which finance is today the most important part. It absolutely is the problem and I think you also would enjoy the book.

  3. David Lentini

    “Basically, the idea is to use the superior intelligence of the policymakers to trick people into doing what the policymaker thinks will best ensure the welfare of both the few and the many.”

    Maybe a better term is “Libertarian Bolshevik”. But let’s face it Philip, as you’ve pointed out earlier the whole idea of Libertarianism is a sham funded by the wealthy to undo the New Deal and European social-democratic states by creating the illusion of an unregulated “free” utopia. The real goal was to create a society based on economic power, which put the rich in control. They’ve succeeded quite well.

    1. McMike

      Bolshevism. Yeah, that was my first thought. Libertarianism is apparently slipping and sliding down the simulacra road. The word was already rendered meaningless when it was whored out to the GOP by Cato for a corporate tax protest.

      Joining the rest of the right in an infantile incoherent self-contradictory endless rage.

      It’s not a long fall for people trapped in juvenile temper tantrums (“don’t tell me what to do”), to start insisting that they are actually specially ordained to tell other people what to do. Because the root of all this nonsense is narcissism, degenerating into pathology when the world keeps refusing to give them their way.

      It’s actually quite funny. Libertarians arguing for a Nanny State. But, you know, their nanny state. Not the icky and doomed liberal one.

      Paternal Libertarianism. Somebody check and see if it’s April First.

  4. charles 2

    ‘Sensible people will recognize that we should try to maximize individual freedom unless this is not possible given a certain set of circumstances”,
    Who determines what is not possible given a certain set of circumstances ? Let me guess : surely not the “certain groups” that are going to be “coerced”…

  5. Larry

    “the libertarian paradigm is ridiculous. It rests on the idea that people exist as atoms in a world where each atom has no effects on other atoms except through completely free contractual arrangements.”

    I love this. Perhaps the best and most objective definition of libertarianism I’ve seen to date. Of course the zealots of libertarianism would reject the science of chemistry that explains how atoms work. Ideology always trumps science for these guys and gals.

        1. The Dylan

          Teenage boys are usually near communists. Libertarianism requires individual responsibility & a respect for property. The teenage boys I’ve known believed the world was theirs for the taking and became wiser when they joined the workforce and began paying taxes. When you see what is taken out of those weekly pay stubs, all of a sudden you realize there really is no free lunch & if you work, you are paying for all those freebies that others get to enjoy.

          1. Lambert Strether

            And then they get a little more mature, and realize that “there but for the grace of ___ go I.” Of course, it’s true that billionaires get a ton of freebies that should be confiscated for all our sakes, and theirs too, but somehow I don’t think that’s what you had in mind. Eh?

  6. j gibbs

    Giving names to things one hates is not analysis. Nobody believes the State should do nothing. That would be anarchy. The serious question is what should States do and what should they not do.

    Here, we start with the abiding principle of freedom for the rich and giant corporations . Everyone else is disciplined by a need to survive by kowtowing to wealth. Would it be better for them to have to kowtow to governmental edict and bureaucracy? Historically, it hasn’t been.

    But here we also have governmental edict and bureaucracy in the service of the rich and the giant corporations. Double whammy.

    1. Min

      “Everyone else is disciplined by a need to survive by kowtowing to wealth. Would it be better for them to have to kowtow to governmental edict and bureaucracy? Historically, it hasn’t been.”

      Yeah, but that’s because the gov’t has been kings and aristocrats. We have a modern thing called representative democracy. The original Tea Party was in favor of it.

      1. hunkerdown

        Representative democracy reliably degenerates to aristocratic rule, and this is arguably by design (Federalist #10).

        If representative democracy were actually representative and not just yet another sandbox for the children, citizens would have an instant, summary, binding right to recall individual officeholders or entire legislatures/parliaments, and fictional persons such as corporations and parties would have zero rights and zero representation in government. That they aren’t suggests that the institution is Whiggish whitewash.

        1. Min

          In the early 19th century, Americans, many of whom were part of the founding generation, distinguished between aristocratic republics and democratic republics, the U. S. being the latter.

    2. Min

      “But here we also have governmental edict and bureaucracy in the service of the rich and the giant corporations. Double whammy.”

      That was true way back when, too. Whose tea do you think got tossed into Boston Harbor? Who got Parliament to decree that colonial currencies were not legal tender?

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      “No one believes the state should do nothing” is a straw man.

      In fact, libertarians actually do believe the state should do almost nothing. Their list is very short and generally consists of defense, police, and courts (to enforce contracts).

      Milton Friedman’s own nephew called him a libertarian anarchist. Their position is much more radical than you seem to want to believe.

      1. j gibbs

        Milton Friedman was a fraud and a crank. His Monetary History of the United States is the most over cited and under read book in economic history. The Fed tried Friedman’s Monetarism for one year (1981) and Treasury Bill rates went to 22%. Wish they would try it again. So does everyone else who is retired.

        1. F. Beard

          Miltie was also a usury-friendly hypocrite since he did not think we should be “free to choose” what money we use for private debts. Or perhaps it simply never occurred to him that one-size-fits-all does not apply to private money either.

      2. Malmo

        Libertarians want what the state wants ( I prefer the state over their authoritarian shithole too). They are expert at semantical nonsense, as Bob Black deftly demonstrates:

        “My target is what most libertarians have in common — with each other, and with their ostensible enemies. Libertarians serve the state all the better because they declaim against it. At bottom, they want what it wants. But you can’t want what the state wants without wanting the state, for what the state wants is the conditions in which it flourishes. My (unfriendly) approach to modern society is to regard it as an integrated totality. Silly doctrinaire theories which regard the state as a parasitic excrescence on society cannot explain its centuries-long persistence, its ongoing encroachment upon what was previously market terrain, or its acceptance by the overwhelming majority of people including its demonstrable victims.

        A far more plausible theory is that the state and (at least) this form of society have a symbiotic (however sordid) interdependence, that the state and such institutions as the market and the nuclear family are, in several ways, modes of hierarchy and control. Their articulation is not always harmonious (herein of turf-fights) but they share a common interest in consigning their conflicts to elite or expert resolution. To demonize state authoritarianism while ignoring identical albeit contract-consecrated subservient arrangements in the large-scale corporations which control the world economy is fetishism at its worst. And yet (to quote the most vociferous of radical libertarians, Professor Murray Rothbard) there is nothing un-libertarian about “organization, hierarchy, wage-work, granting of funds by libertarian millionaires, and a libertarian party.” Indeed. That is why libertarianism is just conservatism with a rationalist/positivist veneer….

        ….The state commands, for the most part, only because it commands popular support. It is (and should be) an embarrassment to libertarians that the state rules with mass support — including, for all practical purposes, theirs….

        ….You might object that what I’ve said may apply to the minarchist majority of libertarians, but not to the self-styled anarchists among them. Not so. To my mind a right-wing anarchist is just a minarchist who’d abolish the state to his own satisfaction by calling it something else….

        …..They don’t denounce what the state does, they just object to who’s doing it. This is why the people most victimized by the state display the least interest in libertarianism. Those on the receiving end of coercion don’t quibble over their coercers’ credentials. If you can’t pay or don’t want to, you don’t much care if your deprivation is called larceny or taxation or restitution or rent. If you like to control your own time, you distinguish employment from enslavement only in degree and duration. An ideology which outdoes all others (with the possible exception of Marxism) in its exaltation of the work ethic can only be a brake on anti-authoritarian orientations, even if it does make the trains run on time….

        ….Libertarians complain that the state is parasitic, an excrescence on society. They think it’s like a tumor you could cut out, leaving the patient just as he was, only healthier. They’ve been mystified by their own metaphors. Like the market, the state is an activity, not an entity. The only way to abolish the state is to change the way of life it forms a part of. That way of life, if you call that living, revolves around work and takes in bureaucracy, moralism, schooling, money, and more. Libertarians are conservatives because they avowedly want to maintain most of this mess and so unwittingly perpetuate the rest of the racket. But they’re bad conservatives because they’ve forgotten the reality of institutional and ideological interconnection which was the original insight of the historical conservatives. Entirely out of touch with the real currents of contemporary resistance, they denounce practical opposition to the system as “nihilism,” “Luddism,” and other big words they don’t understand. A glance at the world confirms that their utopian capitalism just can’t compete with the state. With enemies like libertarians, the state doesn’t need friends.

        1. j gibbs

          Interesting verbiage but I don’t see it leading anywhere. Individuals this intelligent should find it quite easy simply to opt out. There really are still plenty of niches for those committed to independence, while writing stuff like this strikes me as a waste of time and energy.

    4. F. Beard

      Pulling Occam’s Razor on a friend :), without the government-backed/enforced counterfeiting cartel, the banking system, the large corporations would be broadly owned and nearly all of US would benefit from automation, outsourcing and immigration.

      1. j gibbs

        The large corporations are broadly owned. Unfortunately, this is part of the problem. Control is divorced from ownership. The fiction of independent directors allows management to loot the corporations even as the banks are loading them up with debt and the incessant game of asset recapitalization makes suckers of anyone earning money honestly and attempting to save it. This recapitalization demands inflation to validate the new debt. You would get the same thing from a bond market if banks did not exist.

        1. hunkerdown

          I suggest that the problem is not that control isn’t divorced from ownership, but that labor is divorced from control.

  7. Klassy

    There are much bigger problems with libertarian paternalism than the fact that it is an oxymoron. It is the idea that personal choices (whether coerced by the state or not) can override or solve structural problems. They can’t.

  8. pebird

    I thought it was supposed to be an oxymoron/criticism, by pointing out the absurdity of the claim that individual freedom could be provided from an authority via a forced choice. Shows how out of it I am.

  9. Min

    ” Even policies with a substantial component of free choice — like the MMT Job Guarantee which offers anyone willing and able to work a job at a set rate — has a ‘hard paternalistic’ element to it in that we know that this will likely increase worker bargaining power and put upward pressure on wages. Many of us may like this outcome but we should recognise that it is coercive on certain groups.”

    Coerciveness is one characteristic of paternalism, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient for it. What is a necessary characteristic is putting one or more groups of people in a subordinate position. Like women. Like minorities. Like workers. Increasing the power of workers is anti-paternalistic, except to the extent that they use that power to subordinate others.

  10. Alejandro

    “Look, the libertarian paradigm is ridiculous.”

    IMHO, the use of the word “the” is either under-informed or disingenuous. Or did you mean to use the word “this”? If not, which one of the many?
    “Libertarian socialism has also more recently played a large part in the global Occupy movement in particular its focus on direct participatory democracy.” There’s a banner at the upper “right” hand corner of this web-site.

    Can the vilification of words fall into the category of propaganda? Designed to keep us “rubes” from exchanging, debating and developing ideas?

    1. McMike

      Good point. I think it is mainly laziness.

      With something like libertarianism, which is so diverse, fractured, hijacked, and heavily abused, it would require a lot of asterisks to start a conversation, but probably worth it for clarity.

      Indeed the outcome of the propaganda/ new-speak machine, that strips everything of meaning. Making it impossible to talk about Libertarianism without first having a discuss about which flavor you refer to, and debate whether that is really a true Libertarian, and ….

      They did it to the word liberal, to conservative, and now Libertarian. And progressive…

  11. diptherio

    I’ve pointed this out before, but I’ll do it again because I think it is sorta important. The tone of this piece ensures that no one who currently identifies as a libertarian will “have their eyes opened,” so to speak. It’s not the worst example I’ve come across, by a long shot, but phrases like, “…the libertarian paradigm is ridiculous,” and “Sensible people will recognise…,” can only come off an insulting to someone who styles themselves a libertarian. You can’t call people ridiculous and senseless and expect them to hear you out. Softening the the language somewhat might actually make your case more effective to people who don’t already agree with you…just sayin’.

    1. TimR

      It also always leads me to slightly question an author who is so cocksure and spoiling for a fight. I enjoy and have learned from Pilkington’s articles, but that sort of tone always leads me to question whether I’m being manipulated, led to join the author in smug condescension to some inferior group. I’ve noticed this with Mark Ames’ articles too. I guess it’s just a writing style, and I don’t really object to it, it just makes me personally a little wary of the ideas on offer. Maybe if I was completely confident in my own analysis, and agreed with the author, I could bask in our mutual disdain. But since I still feel at sea in appraising the multitude of philosophical and political views out there, it just makes me tentative.

    2. JohnB

      That’s true diptherio, but trying to reason with libertarians is a waste of time; for the odd few you might encounter who will engage you in honest argument, there are hoardes of complete idiots (and/or conscious shills), incapable of an argument not read from their (very short) script – and practically none of them are open to convincing.

      There’s little left to do other than openly ridicule their views, while pointing out and mocking the (usually extremely basic) logical faults in what they’re promoting, which they usually paper-over with emotive hyperbole; on a personal level they may not deserve that, as it’s kind of harsh, but as a(n astroturf) movement at an ideological/intellectual level, it deserves to be lambasted for its extreme and deliberate intellectual dishonesty.

      1. mansoor h. khan

        JohnB said,

        “That’s true diptherio, but trying to reason with libertarians is a waste of time.”

        Good thing is most Americans or most even non-Americans even subscribe to it. So we don’t have to worry about them too much.

        If we are going to have a technologically driven civilization like ours and government issued currency then we cannot have a hands-off extremely small government that libertarians want.

        We need to keep polluters in check, monopolies in check, make sure private parties are not counterfeiting the currency, dangerous technologies are not threatening our well being.

        Mansoor H. Khan

  12. diptherio

    “Sensible people will recognise that we should try to maximise individual freedom unless this is not possible given a certain set of circumstances.”

    I don’t recognize this, but maybe I’m not sensible. I recognize that we should try to maximize societal sustainability and ensure that adequate amounts of resources are available to all members of society, unless circumstances make the latter impossible (the former is a necessity, since a society that fails to be sustainable will eventually collapse, by definition). Individual freedom is a second order concern, at best.

    One of the major differences between the White culture that invaded the land where I now live and the Plains Indian culture that was here before (a difference that has been frequently noted by Native Americans) is where a person’s sense of identity is located. In Western culture, our sense of identity is personal and, to a lesser extent, familial. For the Crow and the Blackfeet, however, identity comes (or came) from the community. We see the community as a collection of individuals–they saw individuals as extensions or incarnations of the community.

    This difference in world-views is important, and it is not the case that either one or the other has a monopoly on being “sensible.”

    1. hunkerdown

      It seems that “Western culture” has grown more atomized more quickly after Bernays than before — maybe it’s whitewash, but it’s been my impression that those before the great consumerization were not much less members of communities than today. Perhaps the Western tradition is just more intersectional in its concept of identity and that’s carried to extremes today as a consumption good?

  13. TimR

    Re: advertising, PR manipulation, etc.
    I’d be curious to hear views from people here on advertising: do you think you personally are susceptible, do you think most people you know are, to what degree, that sort of thing.

    Are their tricks fairly simple and easily noticed if you’re paying attention, or has the “science” of it really advanced such that they can access the unconscious beyond what most people imagine? Are their techniques just ancient sales stand-bys, slightly dressed up in scientistic drag, or highly sophisticated?

    Also I wonder if really the “effectiveness” of PR/propaganda/advertising, is much less any conscious intention or mastery of the manipulators, and much more just the overall cultural inertia — such as Gramsci described, I forget the terms. Maybe “ideological hegemony,” that sort of thing… Just an ancient way that cultural formations maintain and propagate themselves, as a result of lower classes imitating the higher, and unconscious belief systems that everyone holds, even the supposed “manipulators.”

    I personally often like to think that, of course, I don’t fall prey to advertising or propaganda! Maybe to Gramscian forces, that’s much more tricky — but commercials? etc. Maybe I’m deluding myself…

    People cite Bernays as an example of how powerful the manipulators are, but when you read some of his “cases,” like how he tricked women into smoking, there was a high degree of “art” in his technique. He was also obsessed with his profession, utterly dedicated to it. In short most of the PR people our colleges crank out are not going to possess this level of “sorcery.” It seems difficult to use this “magic” reliably, and depends in a helter-skelter manner on individual magicians, charismatic figures or a few rare behind-the-scenes puppet-masters.

    1. McMike

      Clearly it’s gotten more sophisticated. At least in this ability to survey, do focus groups, data mine behavior, to target audiences, there’s been decades of academic and corporate study, and even hook people up to monitoring devices and see what makes their lizard brain overload.

      Effectiveness? Hmm. After Saddam masterminded 9/11 and single-handedly snuck a dirty bomb in to blow up Obama’s birth certificate, I’ll believe anything.

      There is no doubt we know more about how humans tick and and how to manipulate that. Or at least think we do. It is subject to change.

      I consider myself a savvy consumer of product advertising. And I get literally squirmy when the manipulation is too overt or ham-handed. But I have the same reaction watching cheesy love story movies and during the over-wrought personal stories we must endure during the Olympics. Nevertheless, I also have no doubt that I carry all sorts of received wisdom and implanted biases that I am unaware of consciously.

      I do know that you walk into Home Depot and you face a wall of power drills that are all made by the same company, and I know people have loyal favorites nonetheless. I see people hanging on every word of Miley Paris Lohan Beibler, and figure, if them, why not for a brand of soda pop?

      I will confess here to watching the Home Shopping Network and Real Estate scheme shows from time to time. The applied psych is really overt and ham handed, formulaic and repetitive. It is fascinating to watch. Painful. Horrifying. Fascinating. I do know that stuff seems to work richly for the promoters.

      I once watched a three card monte game from a distance at a street fair. Hilarious watching the set up. The dealer (one of two black persons there) had his ringer come in, just a random passerby (the only other black person there), and win time after time. It was so lame, they didn’t even bother counting the money as they passed it back and forth. Pantomimed slapping of forehead every time he won. The crowd, pressed in for their chance.

      Now then, is that the effectiveness of the pitch – making people think they have a chance? Or is it something deeper: daring people to try and beat him; even though knowing the game is rigged.

      We are at once insanely complex and ridiculously simple creatures.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Lordie, there is an entire literature on PR. It’s enormously effective and has been for decades.

      Go read up on cognitive biases. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that people will respond differently to the exact same financial proposition depending on how it is presented.

      People are highly suggestible and manipulable. Your baseline assumption seems to be otherwise.

      1. bh2

        Yep. There’s nothing like a social psych course and/or reading Bernays and Goebbels to know any confidence placed in decisions by the herd (as in “democracy”) can produce an absurd — and perhaps very tragic — outcome.

        1. mansoor h. khan

          bh2 said:

          “confidence placed in decisions by the herd (as in “democracy”) can produce an absurd — and perhaps very tragic — outcome.”

          Do you have suggestion for alternative form organizing?

          Mansoor H Khan

    3. j gibbs

      A good book about Bernays is PR, by Stewart Ewen.

      I think most people are incredibly accepting of things said on television. My personal defense is the mute button and relentless backtalk whenever I am blindsided by TV’s idiotic drivel. I actually sit there ranting about how this or that is complete horseshit. Most of the commercials don’t even bother lying about the product any more; they just try to make you feel friendly toward the corporate monster spewing out toxic, worthless dreck most of which nobody needs anyhow but nearly everyone seems to buy.

      1. Sammy Maudlin

        You want a prime example of an ad that does everything it can to make you feel good about the company while not bothering too much with its actual product/service (because it really isn’t worth much)?

        Closely watch any Bank of America TV ad.

        Non-threatening, sometimes childlike music is played while narratives involving smiling people “celebrating life,” or “having moments” or “overcoming challenges” are relayed by a soft, deep, reassuring voice.

        Meanwhile, what do the ads say about what BOA actually contributes to the lives of these wonderful people? Little to nothing at all. Primarily, it’s just emotional bandwagoneering.

        Or, maybe I’m being too harsh. I mean, there’s no way that a mother and daughter ever get together for their “best day ever” unless mom does some “online banking” first? Right?


  14. American Slave

    I am amazed at how well the corporatists have captured and redefined libertarianism.

    A real Libertarian prefers local government to central government and a community for every person who wants one, run the way its citizens like as long as it doesn’t cause harm to others or get in the way of there freedom. The central government would mostly play the role of protecting the borders and settling disputes among communities and not worry about things like farmers selling unpasteurized milk even if its labeled (of course) and the customers want it. And we now see how there going after organic foods.

    I dont understand the obsession with federal central government. The majority of decisions should be made at the local level at town hall meetings which is not really possible with the federal government.

    All that ever happens with central government is when the wrong person is put in charge they do a lot of widespread damage vs just there community. Imagine if Hitler was only in charge of a small city vs a country or imagine if he was in charge of a one world government. Playing the absolute power central government game is dangerous.

    1. McMike

      The central governments grew in power largely because the local governments were unable or unwilling to deal with the problems of interstate crime, official corruption, cross-border pollution, transnational corporate pathology, and other power imbalances between the community and the criminals.

      Libertarianism lost the war for its soul back when the corporate “person’s” right to pollute trumped the individual actual-person’s right not to be polluted. Blame Cato.

      Libertarianism lost the war when the Randian obsession with mooching labor unions trumped the concern about crony capital looters.

      1. American Slave

        People are different, what the cattle ranchers in Montana want is different that what people in Los Angeles want or need like subways. I agree about pollution concerns as it causes harm to others and that is what the corporatists want, but most people wouldn’t go for that just like how the federal government is trying to shove nuclear waste down Nevada’s throat even tho we dont have any nuclear power plants they want us to pay for the rest of the country’s problems in the most horrible way.

        And not all Libertarians are Randian there are a lot of socialists. I would say what really defines them is local control vs central.

      2. jrs

        I dont’ think it’s failed any more than centralization has failed (and it has failed spectacularly – the U.S. and the E.U.). Mega governments utterly unaccountable to the people. But yes issues that have wide consequences should not be addressed by decentralization.

        1. Code Name D

          Well said.

          But your comment in defense of Libertarianism still exposes a broader problem with political labels in general. Just as every Christian is convinced that they have the one true faith, every Libertarian is just as convinced that they are keepers of the one true Libertarianism.

          Weather centralization or decentralization has failed or succeed largely depends on how you would define them, and under what conditions.

          Corporations benefit from their largess. A county or city could try and investigate a corporation for a crime, but how would they get evidence if the offices reside outside their jurisdiction? And how could a county possibly hope to prosecute when the corporation has deep pockets so many layers that they could keep it locked up in the courts for decades.

          Corporations know this and exploited Libertarianism in order to advance their agenda, and hobble any government agency that might dare to dim their profit margins.

          You are privileged to argue that Sunstein and Thaler’s position doesn’t represent “true” libertarianism if you wish. I have no reason to doubt your assertion. But remaining “true” to the dogma was exactly what was taken advantage of. Perhaps a bit of skepticism would have been more useful.

      3. j gibbs

        In the US the central government was a result of Hamilton’s financial scheme (redemption of revolutionary war debts at par, excise taxes on liquor to service the debt, the Bank of the United States to monopolize money, the tariff to protect domestic manufacturing), and the Civil War to prevent escape of the South.

        And the Federal Reserve, the Income Tax, WWI, Prohibition, WWII, and the National Security Act finished the job.

        Today’s local governments pick up the trash and dispense zoning favors among cronies. They staff offices that answer the telephone and say ‘no’ to any question from anyone hoping to do anything productive inside the jurisdiction.

    1. craazyman

      the thrill of contradictory and the agony of concrete.

      oh man that was bad. I admit.

      Fear not. This conundrum can be solved after a brief moment of contemplation. Libertarian paternalism means getting the government off your back so a libertarian can climb up on it himself — if there’s good money to be made.

  15. Knut

    I’m pretty disappointed in Thaler, who did good work thirty years ago. He probably deserved the Nobel that went to Roth. Sunstein on the other hand is no surprise; he is completely unoriginal and parochial, which seems to be a passe-partout for his kind of American intellectual (using the term generously). The whole discussion remonds me a bit of Oscar Lange’s proposition that a socialist state could reproduce the competitive outcome or even do it better by manipulating the price signals frim the centre. It was a play on Walras’ general equilibrium fiction. This current effort tries to bring the psycho-economic notion that people are irrational in systematic ways and that government should manipulate (nudge) them to do the right thing. Setting aside the question how Sunstein in his infinite wisdom knows what the right thing is, one ought seriously to consider all the other private players who are heavily involved in ‘nudging’ our preferences to buy what they have to sell.

    Sunstein had always struck me alot like Richard Posner: a bright kid who never got past the stage of his ‘look at me’ sophomore essay in political science. Except that they wield real power, neither of them and their kind should be taken seriously. They are second-rate thinkers.

  16. Code Name D

    Exploring conservative arguments is always a journey into absolutes. Its about the only thing they are capable of comprehending.

    The right doses find itself under growing pressure. With the vast income divide becoming more and more obvious, and with the reality of the persisting depression getting harder to ignore, rank and file conservatives are starting to ask questions. After all, what good is all this freedom if every other week the government keeps cutting your food stamps?

    Conservatives are over represented in the ranks of the poor, and no doubt feel every one of those “entitlement” cuts that seem to come down from Washington or the state house every few weeks.

    Libertarian Paternalism sounds like an effort to rehabilitate the doctrine by trying to moderate the “entitlement” position. Just simply call it paternalism.

    I agree with Yves, the message is absurd. But for the audience that it is intended for, it is exactly what they want to here. It removes the red letter from conservatives who are taking public assistance and it opens the door to justifying support for this kind of government assistance. This could help keep the rank and file in line. Or, this could fissile out and never be heard from again.

  17. Randy

    Great Orwell cite there. It’s my feeling that 1984 is way more about Doublespeak than about surveillance. If that is true and if we really do live in an Orwellian state what exactly does that mean?

  18. bob goodwin

    I am a libertarian. Like all people I am different than all other people. I hate corporatism as much as liberals do, but am more likely to blame obamacare than I am the insurers. But I am not so stupid as to fail to note that it takes two hands to clap.

    There are a few Christians who refute all science because it was not written in the bible. There are far more Christians able to hold two simultaneous ideas in their heads without exploding.

    There are even one or two libertarians who can hold a second thought, albeit sequentially. I tire of the argument of inconsistency, which first demands that truths be absolute. For example, I am far more comfortable with a universal wage than I am than a 2000 page law that says one thing and does another. Am I inconsistent? I think I was inconsistent once, but changed my mind.

    Everyone will scream at me on the comment stream, and give me an example of some person X with position Y that is inconsistent with Z, and prove that all people who do X, Y, or Z are inconsistent, and so therefore X, Y and Z are invalid.

    Everything is invalid by that standard. Progressivism has a material advantage over all ideologies (perhaps except deeply religious ideologies) in that they are well explored ideology with a large group of similar adherents, so are more self reinforcing. Libertarianism predates todays Progressivism (it is called classical liberalism), but has never had the coherence of progressivism, and also has the disadvantage of being a populist movement, where as progressivism is more likely linked in the public imagination to neo-liberalism who stole the mantle from progressivism after 150 years of ruling western civilization.

    Populist ideologies are almost by definition incoherent.

    Even as a libertarian I spend a lot of my day reaching out to help and support others. It does not feel inconsistent to me, and I don’t feel a need to be consistent. I also like to have progressive friends and religious friends who are tolerant of diversity.

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