The Problem With Nudging People to Happiness.

Author:Barnett, Randy E.
Position:BOOKS - Cass R. Sunstein's "On Freedom" - Book review

JUST AS A building has a structure that allows the people within it to pursue their own happiness without obstructing the movements of others, a free society has a structure defined by the natural rights of first possession, private property, freedom of contract, restitution, and self-defense. These rights--all of which can be loosely characterized as "property rights"--distinguish liberty from license. License is the freedom to do whatever you desire. Liberty is the freedom to do whatever you desire with what, according to these principles, is rightfully yours.

In the Hobbesian state of nature, liberty is conceived as the liberty do anything at all, including the freedom to use other people's bodies. So government is needed to limit this liberty to avoid life being solitary, nasty, and short. By contrast, the Lockean state of nature "has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions." Government, then, exists not to limit liberty but to protect it better than each of us can do on our own.

When speaking of freedom in the abstract, it is essential to know to which freedom one refers. The title of Cass Sunstein's small and provocative new book, On Freedom, is therefore ambiguous. Does he mean unrestricted freedom that must be shaped or limited by government? Or does he mean a liberty bounded by rights that government is tasked to secure?

Sunstein is a progressive liberal. He genuinely cares about individual freedom. But like all progressives, he thinks "we" can do better than merely protecting the rights of individuals and letting the spontaneous order of human actions develop from there. The best and the brightest should intervene to improve outcomes.

Sunstein's distinctive contribution concerns the nature of that intervention. Most progressives, like Hobbes, believe that freedom must be constrained by force to "make the world a better place." Indeed, many seem to believe that anything that is not prohibited by the state should be mandated. Sunstein, instead, has long favored "nudging" over jailing and fining. On Freedom is an accessible introduction to how he approaches social problems--and a constructive challenge for libertarians.

The book disclaims any effort to "explore the differences between 'negative freedom' and 'positive freedom'...

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