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Soft paternalism (also referred to as asymmetrical paternalism and libertarian paternalism) is a political philosophy that believes the state can

help you make the choices you would make for yourself—if only you had the strength of will as well as the sharpness of mind. But unlike 'hard' paternalists, who ban some things and mandate others, the softer kind aims only to skew your decisions, without infringing greatly on your freedom of choice.[1]

The term libertarian paternalism is intended to evoke the idea that soft paternalism is an approach to public policy that can be endorsed by some self-described libertarians because it does not abridge individual freedom, though other libertarians are firmly opposed to it.[2]

Asymmetric paternalism refers to two asymmetries: the policies are designed to help irrational people who are not advancing their own interests while not interfering with the autonomy of those who are making rational, deliberate decisions. It is also asymmetric in the sense that the policies are designed to be acceptable to those who believe that people behave rationally and to people who believe that people behave less than rationally.

Examples of policies[]

As an example, take the default contribution rates on defined contribution tax-deferred retirement savings plans in the United States. Until recently, the default contribution rate for most plans was zero, and despite the enormous tax advantages, many people took years to start contributing if they ever did. Behavioral economists attribute this to the "status quo bias", the common human resistance to changing one's behavior, combined with another common problem: the tendency to procrastinate. Research by behavioral economists demonstrated, moreover, that firms which raised the default rate instantly and dramatically raised the contribution rates of their employees.[3]

The asymmetry of soft paternalism can be seen in the case of a policy which raises default rates. Those who are making an informed deliberate choice to put aside zero percent of their income in tax deferred savings still have this option, but those who were not saving simply out of inertia or due to procrastination are helped by higher default contribution rates. It is also asymmetric in the second sense: If you do not believe that defaults matter, because you believe that people will make rational decisions about something as important as retirement saving, then you should not care about the default rate. If you believe that defaults matter, on the other hand, you should want to set defaults at the level that you believe will be best for the largest number of people.

Criticism of including "libertarian" in the title[]

In an article appearing in the August 2004 Econ Journal Watch, economist Daniel B. Klein criticized libertarian paternalism as oxymoronic.[4] In his article, Klein argued against what he perceived as an overly loose and weak definition of libertarianism on the grounds that Thaler and Sunstein[5] made no meaningful distinction between liberty and coercion. In failing to define the concepts of liberty and coercion as fundamentally dissimilar processes, libertarian paternalism uses a hyper-rational behavior model of human nature as a definition for libertarianism, and neglects alternative definitions such as those advanced by Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek.

See also[]


  1. The rise of soft paternalism
  2. [1]
  3. Choi, James J., Laibson, David I., Madrian, Brigitte C. and Metrick, Andrew (December 2001). For Better or For Worse: Default Effects and 401(k) Savings Behavior.
  5. "Libertarian paternalism is not an oxymoron" CR Sunstein, RH Thaler - University of Chicago Law Review, 2003

Further reading[]

  • Thaler, Richard H. and Cass R. Sunstein. The American Economic Review [AER] 93 (2), (2003): 175-179

External links[]

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