In today’s New York Times, philosopher Sarah Conly gives “Three Cheers for the Nanny State,” specifically, NYC’s famed big soda ban. Invoking aspects of the theory of “nudge,” made popular in a book by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Conly argues that, sometimes, the government can rightfully save us from ourselves.
The popularity of “nudge theory” is closely tied to the recent spate of popular science books on the foibles of the human brain. Books such as Predictably Irrational and A Mind of Its Own are part of a new self-help fad: the idea that scientists studying the error-prone human brain can help us understand why we are unable to quit smoking, lose weight, and many other common problems.
It was only a matter of time until government regulators and their champions embraced this new science in order to put a fresh spin on an old impulse—their never-ending desire to save us from ourselves. But despite the valid insights of cognitive neuroscience, both nudge theory and Conly’s editorial are no more defensible than any other paternalism. We should not be deceived into believing that there is any new wine in those old wineskins.