Journal of Evolutionary Economics

, Volume 24, Issue 3, pp 515–539 | Cite as

Should evolutionary economists embrace libertarian paternalism?

  • Martin Binder
Regular Article


Libertarian paternalists hold that biases and distortions in human decision-making justify paternalistic interference affecting individuals’ decisions. The aim of this paper is to analzye to what extent an evolutionary outlook supports libertarian paternalism. I will put forward three arguments in favour of libertarian paternalism and six objections that strongly oppose it. While evolutionary economists should take seriously the contention that our positive knowledge of real-world decision-making will have to influence our normative assessment of these decisions, the objections against libertarian paternalism brought forward in this paper serve as a cautionary note. Contrary to the claims of its proponents, libertarian paternalism is neither inevitable, nor does it provide an adequate measuring rod of normative rationality. It is prone to abuse by anchoring its standard of rationality pragmatically to norms and can thus promote conservative bias and stifle innovative exploration. It also presents the policy-maker with a compounded Hayekian knowledge problem. Finally, from a dynamic point of view, libertarian paternalism’s manipulative shaping of preferences might lock-in individuals into heteronomous preference learning paths without them being even aware of it.


Evolutionary economics Libertarian paternalism Behavioural economics Naturalistic methodology 

JEL Classifications

B52 D63 



This research was funded by the ESRC-TSB-BIS-NESTA as part of the ES/J008427/1 grant on Skills, Knowledge, Innovation, Policy and Practice (SKIPPY). I wish to thank the participants of seminars at the University of Jena and the University of Sussex for helpful comments and suggestions. I am most grateful for the very insightful and extensive comments from both Nathan Berg and an anonymous referee. I have also benefitted from discussions with the participants of two workshops on the normative correlates of behavioural and evolutionary economics in Freiburg in 2009 and 2011. Finally, I want to thank Ulrich Witt and Leonhard K. Lades for comments and the latter also for stimulating discussions about nudging and self-nudging. Errors and biases, sadly, remain mine alone.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Science and Technology Policy Research UnitUniversity of SussexBrightonUK
  2. 2.Evolutionary Economics GroupMax Planck Institute of EconomicsJenaGermany

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