What is freedom without governance?

On Freedom
PATERNALISM / Sunstein advocates active social manipulation to help us make smarter choices. In the book On Freedom, he questions whether free choice actually promotes human welfare.


Sunstein won the high-hanging Holberg Prize in 2018, for outstanding research in the fields of psychology and behavioral economics. He is a defender of libertarian paternalism and active social manipulation, and has for many years researched how our choices can be influenced in the best possible direction. Clearly influenced by Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking fast and slow (Think, fast and slow, Pax Forlag, 2013), Sunstein believes that there are two main systems that influence our choices: the reflexive system and the automatic system.

Instinct versus reflection

The automatic system is fast and makes us act on instinct. This system usually does not involve what we mean by imagine. It can be compared to reactions that occur automatically, such as that we smile when we see a child, feel nervous when we are subjected to turbulence, or that we show up when a ball is thrown or kicked. The reflexive system is self-aware and includes long-term planning. It also means that we take better time to reflect on the different choices we face. Since conflicts often arise between these two systems, libertarian paternalism, or soft paternalism, is a useful tool and is to be understood as a fusion of libertarianism and paternalism.

Sunstein is positive to social manipulation to make our lives better.

Sunstein believes that people should be free to do as they please, but that it is perfectly legitimate for social manipulators to try to influence people's patterns of action to make their lives better, longer and healthier. This can happen through so-called nudges ( "Nudging"). Hard paternalism in a cafe would be to remove all unhealthy food from the counter, making it impossible to get hold of. Soft paternalism, or dulting, would mean moving the unhealthy food out of sight, making it more difficult to obtain i. It will only cost us a bit extra effort to get hold of it, but it may be enough for us to choose a healthier alternative.

Cass R. Sunstein

The belief in the absolute blessing of free choice implies a confidence that people always know what is best for them. But do they always always do that? Isn't it allowed to gently influence people in a more positive direction? What if people simply don't know how to find the best option? This has to do with self-control. People with substance abuse have no control over their addiction, and therefore cannot be said to be free individuals. The same goes for people who have problems with overeating or gambling, to name a few examples. Besides, we can all have trouble finding the best alternatives and choose the simpler ones. Then we need help to make more reasonable choices.

Cass R. Sunstein is a liberalist, but he does not believe that a completely free choice always makes life better. It is not even certain that a completely free choice is possible: We may be tempted along the way. Like Adam and Eve in paradise, we lack self-control and are tempted. We can quickly be manipulated into choosing a worse, or the worst, alternative. Letting people decide for yourself is not necessarily the best solution.


How did you manage to reduce food waste in the US restaurant industry? A lot was tried, but only when putting out smaller plates did food waste in hotels and restaurants decrease by over 20 per cent over a year. This tool is called gentle paternalism, or yes, precisely, dulting.

Stores in Norway often tempt with lots of soda and chocolate at the end of the shopping round, and we put this in the shopping cart without thinking. Here, the choice architecture ("choice architecture") facilitates our consumption of unhealthy confectionery products. One can also say that nature contains an element of choice architecture, as the weather facilitates various forms of driving, use of bicycles in mild weather, and so on. We can insist as much as we want on the completely free choice, but we cannot opt ​​out of the environment.

Do people always know what's best for themselves?

One might say that dulting is sources of influence that safeguard the possibility of free choice – the large plates may still be there, but in the background – but that they guide people's choices in certain directions and involve a cautious influence, which does not change much in the social environment. Another form of dulting may be information on the number of calories on the menu. Those who cheer on dulting often claim that people do not take into account all relevant information when choosing, because they have limited time or insight into the various choices, have self-control problems or hesitate and doubt what to do. Then dulting can be a useful tool.

Based on this small study, one may wonder if not dulting is a better form of influence than prohibition and stronger warnings. The goal is to help you navigate better. An obvious example of dulting is the GPS in your car: It respects your freedom and you can ignore its advice if you want to do so. Nor is it a goal that you should make yourself completely dependent on its advice. Then you risk just ending up in the ditch.

Subscription NOK 195 quarter