18th century monarchs can be libertarian paternalists too

Frederick the Great of Prussia saw the potato’s potential to help feed his nation and lower the price of bread, but faced the challenge of overcoming the people’s prejudice against the plant. When he issued a 1774 order for his subjects to grow potatoes as protection against famine, the town of Kolberg replied: “The things have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?” Trying a less direct approach to encourage his subjects to begin planting potatoes, Frederick used a bit of reverse psychology: he planted a royal field of potato plants and stationed a heavy guard to protect this field from thieves. Nearby peasants naturally assumed that anything worth guarding was worth stealing, and so snuck into the field and snatched the plants for their home gardens. Of course, this was entirely in line with Frederick’s wishes.

From this history of the potato via Rory Sutherland, who submits it as an “interesting example of libertarian paternalism. A worse king would have mandated the consumption of potatoes, or at least their cultivation.” Sutherland will have a nudge for readers on Friday. Check back then.

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  • foggy jones

    that is a terrific story. typical of humankind and a lot like the monekys kipling wrote about – the banderlog.