Boldly suggests that making small changes to little things may have some minor but salutary effects.
Government could design forms where the default option is to donate organs or save more for retirement. Individuals would have to actively opt out to avoid doing these things. Government could tell air-conditioner makers to build in a little red light to announce when the filter needs changing. That would make homes more energy efficient, since people are too lazy to change the filters promptly otherwise.
Or maybe not.
Because to be a real David Brooks column, there must be two, equally matched and equally imaginary sides to this complete non-issue.
Side number one:
Do we want government stepping in to protect us from our own mistakes? Many people argue no.
...says Mr. Brooks, boldly ignoring every one of thousands of almost entirely non-controversial examples of "stepping in" from seat-belts to traffic lights to lifeboat requirements to warnings on cigarettes packs that Mr. Brooks asserts some group called "many people" think are sinkholes of creeping tyranny.
Mr. Brooks continues:
This kind of soft paternalism will inevitably slide into a hard paternalism, with government elites manipulating us into doing the sorts of things they want us to do. Policy makers have their own cognitive biases, which will induce them to design imperfect interventions even if they mean well.
Individuals may be imperfect decision-makers, but they still possess more information than faraway government rule-makers. If government starts manipulating decision-making processes, then individuals won’t learn to think for themselves. Even just setting a default position reduces liberty and personal responsibility.
...boldly argues nobody outside of a tight circle of Rand Paul fanboys lining up early to see "Atlas Shrugged III" before the free market disposes of it like a downer cow.
So that's one side. Here's the other.
The pro-paternalists counter that government is inevitably setting contexts and default positions anyway, so they might as well be aligned with individual and social goals. There’s very little historical evidence that there is an inevitable slippery slope leading from soft paternalism to hard paternalism.
But as bland and empty as this is, it is possible that someone somewhere might find some part of it mildly controversial. And so just to make doubly sure that no one is offended by anything, Mr. Brooks gives all the fictional contestants in this non-debate a participation trophy:
I’d say the anti-paternalists win the debate in theory but the libertarian paternalists win it empirically.
In theory, it is possible...
But, in practice, it is hard to...
And all of it -- all 800 words which Mr. Brooks has been given to boldly use in the op-ed page of America's newspaper of record any way he wishes -- boils down to this fierce battle over Freedom that someone is apparently having somewhere:
But, in practice, it is hard to feel that my decision-making powers have been weakened because when I got my driver’s license enrolling in organ donation was the default option. It’s hard to feel that a cafeteria is insulting my liberty if it puts the healthy fruit in a prominent place and the unhealthy junk food in some faraway corner...
And in this way, Mr. Brooks shows his special genius.
Because in August of 2013, everything is hot to the touch. And as I survey our cultural landscape from the NSA surveillance/FISA court issue to what is happening to Chicago public schools to the catastrophic fallout from the GOP's now-complete, psychotic break from reality, I would have bet real money that, short of giving up completely and writing a biography of the Illinois State Fair Butter Cow, no opinion editorial writer operating at Mr. Brooks' level could possible pretend to dig into the sinews of some overarching ideological issue by cruising across that scalding landscape in a vehicle built entirely out of nothing.
But I would have been wrong.