Thursday, June 26, 2008

Libertarian Paternalism—or, the Monkeys Sleep Tonight

A keeper of monkeys said with regard to their rations of nuts that each monkey was to have three in the morning and four at night. At this the monkeys were very angry. Then the keeper said they might have four in the morning and three at night, with which arrangement they were all well pleased.
—from Chuang Tzu, translated by Lin Yutang

I’ve conjectured before on this blog that much if not most of the persistent gaps between the results of the major Japanese media polls are determined by the names of the media outlets taking the polls and their respective political inclinations. However, I am also aware that the wording and sequence of the questions can have a powerful effect on the way the questions are answered. More broadly, how you present your case can have a drastic effect on the outcome. In business, it’s most obviously in play in advertising and salesmanship. In politics… well, it’s politics.

Which is why I cannot fully share George F. Will’s understated—it is George Will—enthusiasm for “libertarian paternalism”. Beyond its oxymoronic feel, it’s nothing more than the deliberate application of a communications skill that is older than the hills. It’s the kind of thing that libertarians would hate to have directed against themselves. Applied to Barack Obama, it looks more like subliminal (an opponent might say “stealth”) liberalism.

The trick is familiar to anyone who has registered at multiple websites.

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