So-called "soft" or (worse yet) "libertarian" paternalism parts ways from more traditional forms in that the relative price changes wrought by policy are meant to be a bit more mild. Under a standard regime, marijuana is bad and under no circumstances can you buy, sell, transport, produce, or possess it without the risk of running afoul of statutes backed by force. In contrast, the new paternalism would have you opt into the market for marijuana use, perhaps requiring licensure or some other surmountable barrier to entry, just enough to deter marginal users, but relaxing the barriers enough to erode profits that arise from legislated risk. The point of the new paternalism is that program managers can design suitable defaults to alter behavior that results in better outcomes, however that might be measured.
Public choice scholars are skeptical of the project.
And from across the pond, we find a particularly fine example of how a gentle nudge can easily become a rough shove. Parliament wants to make online pornography opt-in.
But how is this any different from default settings for organ donation or 401(k) participation you ask? Easy. It's the relative prices, man. The psychic cost of summoning the courage to submit a form with your name and address on it that states in no uncertain terms that you wish to view pornographic materials at your leisure in the comfort of your own home, and probably with the shades drawn is non-negligible.
It's premature to criticize the entire Thaler/Sunstein project just because the House of Commons pulled the legislative equivalent of a big brother punching a younger brother with his own hand saying, "stop hitting yourself; stop hitting yourself," but it is worth asking what happens when well-intentioned social planners armed with a brand-new fleet of default option controls fail to see the sort of change they envision. How easy is it to point to a putatively available option, surrounded though it might be by ravenous crocodiles and irate celebrity chefs?
"Sure, you're free to opt in, you just have to sign this waiver in the public square affirming that you have every deliberate intention of abusing yourself Biblically. Signed this Date of Our Lord 30 July Two Thousand and Thirteen under the witness of The Lord High Exchecquer."
Paternalist please. Metastasis is real. Pretending otherwise insults the intelligence of even the very stupid.