Harvard Law School professor Sunstein (Simpler: The Future of Government, 2013, etc.) takes up the question of the limits to government power in this intriguing revision of the Storrs Lectures on Jurisprudence he gave at Yale in 2012.
The author is a proponent of what he calls “soft paternalism.” Based on a thorough critique of John Stuart Mill's “Liberty Principle,” otherwise known as the “Harm Principle,” which allows for government intervention to protect citizens, Sunstein advocates for a middle way between those who reject government intervention and what he calls “welfarism.” Sunstein's approach is intended to preserve choice by making it “more likely people will promote their own ends, as they themselves understand it.” He contends that behavioral economics has advanced understanding of human behavior and allows for restrictions on government action to be loosened in favor of new forms of intervention but for more accurately and narrowly defined purposes. The author proposes to use government power in combination with the methods of behavioral economics to steer people away from the potentially harmful (think smoking) and toward the beneficial—e.g., improving fuel economy. By employing disclosures, warnings and default rules, rather than threats of imprisonment and fines, to affect peoples' choices, Sunstein stakes out a middle position between proponents of free choice, who oppose any form of government intervention, and advocates of a welfare state. He refutes the contention that governments lack either the information or competence to intervene effectively on questions involving peoples' welfare—e.g., former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on large sodas—while maintaining a case for the actions of free markets.
A provocative challenge to the fixed mindsets of left and right alike.