Economists have always been moralists, but since the mid-20th century many have also become wannabe technocrats—unelected experts who make public policy decisions based on specialized information rather than public opinion. A prime example is the new “libertarian paternalists” (a group that is definitely paternalistic but not very libertarian) who believe that government should attempt to influence the economic choices of affected parties in a way that will make choosers better off.
In a review of Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s new book How Much is Enough?, Karen Horn explains why this approach often leads to disaster:
The Skidelskys produce a whole list of basic goods that constitute the good life as they see it: health, security, respect, personality (which in their view leads both to the right to a private sphere and to redistribution of property), friendship, leisure and harmony with nature. Not only are these items taken to be universal needs, but ends in themselves as well.
The argument is by no means religious. It is Aristotelian, based on a notion of natural law — and thus axiomatic. It is not a very large step from there to imposing a lifestyle on other people. Such intrusiveness cannot be avoided by paying lip-service to the idea of liberty. Calling one’s version of paternalism “non-coercive”, as the Skidelskys self-consciously rush to do, is not enough. These days, the “road to serfdom” that Friedrich Hayek famously feared to see Western civilisation embark on in the 1940s is paved with the good intentions of a fast-growing group of libertarian paternalists. And the self-appointed messiahs who show us the way along this road are clothed in nannies’ uniforms.
The policy recommendations that flow from the Skidelskys are as old as they are proven recipes for disaster: ever more government influence, massive income redistribution, a basic wage, progressive consumer taxes, a slower economic integration of the world. Some ghosts continue to haunt us.