Wilkinson on Paternalism

Memo to self: check Will Wilkinson more often.  From last week:

I say, again and again, that it is an embarrassing non-sequitur to argue that people are "irrational" and then leap to the conclusion that they need benevolent paternal guidance from the state. After all, if people are irrational then voters are irrational, politicians are irrational, bureaucrats are irrational, etc. … There is no way to wriggle out of the fact that people who win elections are just like the rest of us. … I don’t doubt that non-terrible policies are sometimes successfully enacted. To doubt that would be a bit like a market skeptic doubting that anyone ever succeeds in buying a candy bar. That would be terrifically dense. What I doubt, very strongly, is that the discovery of "irrationalities" undermines the authority of market institutions more than it undermines the authority of government institutions.

Similar words have often escaped my lips.  Let me put it this way.  We each realize, to varying degrees, that we have various "irrational" tendencies, and there are many possible advisors, mechanisms, and institutions that we could rely on to help us mitigate these tendencies.  We can think twice about decisions, we can ask for advice, we can empower advisors to veto our decisions, we can join groups that make decisions together, we can seek out contexts where such problems are minimized, or we can endorse politicians who empower regulators to create and enforce rules.  It is not enough to show that we seem to have a certain problem and that a certain regulation might plausibly mitigate it.  The question is the relative value of this last option, government regulation, compared to all the other ways we might deal with our "irrationalities."

Added 7Mar: George McGovern, ’72 Demo Pres Candidate, is now against paternalism. HT: Arnold Kling

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