Is There a Problem With "Libertarian Paternalism"?

From this artilce in the NYT:

Mr. Thaler and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School suggested that it is proper for the government, or an employer, to set boundaries to choice to achieve desired social objectives, an approach they call “libertarian paternalism.”

Government, employer. Same thing.


This last clause of that sentence captures the deep tension between paternalist welfarism and democracy as the means of republican self-government. If it is known in advance which “social objectives” it is “desirable” to achieve, then the technocrats can “set boundaries to choice” to bias the process of social choice in the favor of these objectives. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. A constitutional convention, for example, is all about setting boundaries to achieve desired social objectives. But at the post-constitutional phase, the state's “setting boundaries” in this way can amount to an illiberal and anti-democratic imposition of parochial values. Liberals who see the basis of state legitimacy in a kind of deliberative democratic procedure have to eschew technocratic framing or bounding of the choice set. But it's easy to press too hard on this point. If you're going to have an adminstrative bureaucracy, it's going to issue regulations. And I sure want to say that some regulatory institutions (a market in pollution credits, for example) are better than others (say, demanding an across-the-board reduction). I think the distinction has to lie in they WAY boundaries to choice are set, and the KIND of constraints the boundary setting process imposes.