Paternalism Is Hard

I’ve posted many times on paternalism (e.g., here and here), so was hopeful when I saw that the latest Cato Unbound is on paternalism.  Alas it is mostly heat, not light.  Glen Whitman warns of slippery slopes, crude politicians, and biased question framing, and asks how behavioralists choose among inconsistent consumer preferences.  Richard Thaler responds that there is no slope and that paternalism is sometimes inevitable.  Bryan Caplan complains that Thaler and company only ever work to increase paternalism:

Why do Sunstein and Thaler use their meme to make extra paternalism a little less objectionable, instead of making existing paternalism a lot less objectionable?

Arnold Kling agrees, as does Scott Sumner:

The real test of libertarian paternalism will come when we see how often it is advocated as a way of softening hard paternalism.

As far as I’m concerned, all of these authors avoid the core hard problem.  Yes paternalism can be a matter of degree, but even so we need principles by which to choose what degree of paternalism is appropriate in what context.  Just repeating “More” and “Less” quickly gets tiresome.  Such principles need to explicitly take into account the fact that organizations can give folks advice instead of limiting their choices.  And any analysis based on the idea that folks can be irrationally deaf to advice is an intellectual sham if it doesn’t consider similar deafness by organization decision makers. (And vice versa.)

Added 9Apr: David Henderson shows Thaler and company have argued for reduced paternalism.

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  • bruce

    That ‘Twelve Against the Gods’ guy had a few remarks on how female voters want a government that acts like Big Daddy.

  • Hrm

    Once we go down this road, we start getting past ideology, and start getting to policy. Suddenly we’re not talking about Libertarianism, Socialism, Social Democracy, or Capitalism. We’re talking “rational/empirical based policy-making” that uses whatever tests and tools will work to reach our ultimate goals, whatever we define them to be.

    It’s the very antithesis of “process legitimizes outcome” policy-making. Instead, we:

    – Will try to use the proper mix of public and private institutions, ownership, power, market solutions and non-market solutions, and actors

    – Will try to use the proper mix of centralization and decentralization

    – Will try to use the proper amount of regulation or lack thereof

    How does this differ from the real world, where things are already “mixed”? Goals first, then process. Right now, we have this seemingly chaotic mix of conflicting goals and desire to use varying processes at the municipal, state, and national level. We’re still fighting over things like ALL PATERNALISM BAD! ALL PATERNALISM GOOD! MARKETS ALWAYS BAD! MARKETS ALWAYS GOOD!

    I’m all for passionate debate and serious rational inquiry into the proper solutions to problem X, with constant renegotiation of the proper mix of things to fix that problem or meet that goal, but we haven’t gotten even past the basics. It’s so ugly and dishonest. Instead, we should be talking about using everything where it’s appropriate: “For goal X, unregulated markets work best. Let’s use those unless something proves we should change it” “For goal Y, state administration and distribution work best. Let’s use those until something proves we should change it”. We’d rather waste time punching each other in the knee and blindly quoting dead radicals.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Is this a case where a democracy might function better than the experts? Voters do not seem to have much preferences for less or more paternalism in the abstract (even if they claim to have them, they rarely vote as if they did). They are in favour of certain ones and against others, based mainly on how they feel it affects them.

    Voters are of course, ignorant and lacking understanding and perpective, but they at least give a more nuanced view of paternalisms than good/bad – and, until we get a real alternative, it could be best to just follow voters and politician’s preferrences on these issues.

    • Stuart Armstrong

      “until we get a real alternative” should be “until we build a real alternative”

  • I’ve like Thaler’s idea that we set the default we think in someone’s best interest, but without preventing or discouraging people from choosing whatever other option they like if they don’t like the default.

    The principle that ‘paternalism’ should be much more acceptable as long as it doesn’t preclude certain choices seems like a good one. It would much reduce the potential downside in the case of government incompetence (at most people are inconvenienced by having to reject the default).

  • Kenny Evitt

    I thought they were arguing about principles regarding paternalism! Can you give a quick sketch or outline of what those principles would be like? I can’t think where to even start with such a task. Do we need to assume a shared goal? Do we examine specific scenarios re: paternalism separately? How do we adjust for the fact that some people dislike paternalism itself?

  • Blackadder

    “[W]e need principles by which to choose what degree of paternalism is appropriate in what context.”


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