Search Results for: paternalism

Honest Teen Paternalism

Worried about teens taking risks tonight, on New Year’s Eve?  Most people think teens take too many risks, and so we should limit the risks teens can take, for their own good.  And from the usual lectures we give teens, it seems we think teens underestimate the rate and severity of bad events.  But in fact, a recent NYT says teens overestimate drug and sex risks:

Scientific studies have shown that adolescents are very well aware of their vulnerability and that they actually overestimate their risk of suffering negative effects from activities like drinking and unprotected sex.

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Inconsistent Paternalism

All but one US state requires drivers to wear seat belts, and every airline flight must be delayed so all passengers can hear a safety lecture, but BASE jumping is widely allowed and terribly dangerous:

Veterans of BASE jumping — an acronym that stands for parachute free falls from buildings, antennae, spans or earth — call their sport the most dangerous in the world, with only 1,200 experienced jumpers and at least 115 fatalities. … BASE jumping is illegal in parts of the world and across the East Coast … Right now, a BASE jumper dies somewhere in the world about once every three weeks.

This Washington Post article mentions the danger but is not particularly disapproving, a vastly different tone I’m sure than if they were reporting on other nations without seat belt laws.  Why the vastly different treatment?

My best explanation is social status: we are much more paternalistic toward the low in status.  We allow rich people to invest in most anything they like, but limit poor people to investments approved by regulators, and we are far more concerned about alcohol and illegal drug use by the poor than the rich, even though both groups use them at similar rates.  An inner city activity with a similar mortality rate to BASE jumping would be illegal so fast it would make your head spin.

Added: To see what best explains paternalism, we should create a dataset of behaviors, where we code the degree of paternalism regarding those behaviors, and other possible explanatory features of those behaviors, so we can systematically check for patterns.  Any grad student interested in trying this?

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Why Teen Paternalism?

Though in centuries past 15-19 year olds were treated as adults, today we often paternalistically restrict their behavior because of "immature" brains.   An OpEd in Monday’s New York Times says 35-54 year olds actually behave worse:

A spate of news reports have breathlessly announced that science can explain why adults have such trouble dealing with teenagers: adolescents possess "immature," "undeveloped" brains that drive them to risky, obnoxious, parent-vexing behaviors. … But the handful of experts and officials making these claims are themselves guilty of reckless overstatement. More responsible brain researchers … caution that scientists are just beginning to identify how systems in the brain work. …

Our most reliable measures show Americans ages 35 to 54 are suffering ballooning crises: … 46,925 fatal accidents and suicides in 2004, leaving today’s middle-agers 30 percent more at risk for such deaths than people aged 15 to 19 … 21 million binge drinkers (those downing five or more drinks on one occasion in the previous month), double the number among teenagers and college students combined …

Overdose rates for heroin, cocaine, pharmaceuticals and drugs mixed with alcohol far higher than among teenagers. … More than half of all new H.I.V./AIDS diagnoses in 2005 were given to middle-aged Americans, … It’s true that 30 years ago, the riskiest age group for violent death was 15 to 24. But those same boomers continue to suffer high rates of addiction and other ills throughout middle age, while later generations of teenagers are better behaved. Today, the age group most at risk for violent death is 40 to 49, including illegal-drug death rates five times higher than for teenagers.

Strangely, the experts never mention even more damning new "discoveries" about the middle-aged brain, like the 2004 study of scans by Harvard researchers revealing declines in key memory and learning genes that become significant by age 40.

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More On Future Self Paternalism

Robin recently wrote a post asking whether it makes any sense for your current self to take actions that "paternalistically" constrain your future self.  Below are some points in response, most of which were already mentioned in one form or another in the comments to Robin’s post.

1. Current you has no choice but to act in some sense paternalistically towards future you simply by virtue of the fact that current you came first.  It is inevitable that current you will make choices that set the stage for future you, which requires current you to make decisions based on what’s good for future you.

2. The standard that must be met for future self paternalism to be rational may not be that current you has to be systematically more rational than future you; the standard may only be that current you has to be more rational than future you at his weakest moment.  And that’s not a very hard standard to meet.

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Future Self Paternalism

Via Tyler Cowen, we hear Robert Fogel did not trust his future selves:

When I graduated from college, I had two job offers.  One was from my father, to join him in the meat-packing business.  That would have been quite lucrative. The other was as an activist for a left-wing youth organization.  I chose the latter and worked as an activist from 1948 to 1956.  At the time I was making that decision, my father told me: "If you really believe in that cause, come work with me.  You will make a much higher wage and you could give your extra income to hire several people instead of just yourself."  I thought, well, that makes some sense.  But I was convinced that this was a way to get me to change my views or at least lessen my commitment to an ideological cause that I found very important.  Yes, the first year, I might give all of my extra money to the movement, but every year I would probably give less, and finally reach the point when I was giving nothing at all.  I feared I would be co-opted. I thought this was my father’s way of indoctrinating me.

When I spent a few weeks at Oxford last summer, Toby Ord similarly said he wanted to commit his future selves to donating at least ten percent of income to third world charity; he did not trust his future selves to make that choice for themselves. 

These paternalism examples are striking, because paternalism is usually justified as a response to a combination of ignorance and irrationality, but Robert and Toby should expect their futures selves to be just as smart and rational, and even better informed than they.  How can they reasonably expect their future selves to be so much more biased that force is appropriate to constrain them?

Added: Tody Ord elaborates in the comments.

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Extreme Paternalism

(Though as Bryan Caplan points out, it might be better called Extreme Maternalism.)  In a comment on Friday, Michael Vassar suggested:

Why not simply extend the age of parental authority, or more optimally, designate a discrete set of "parental" authority types that individuals have periodic (annual) opportunities to review and to transfer to some other parental figure. Some sort of licensing might or might not be required for "in-loco parentis" candidates (and for biological parents, or perhaps not). The right to designate parental authority, as well as various reductions in such authority, might be gradually phased in with age, or as the result of various tests or maturity rituals, or possibly a combination of both.

This is very similar to a 1993 suggestion of mine, and both are attempts to find a minimal paternalism, realizing gains from decision review and veto, but retaining maximal flexibility and adaptation to individual variations.   

An opposite extreme would be extend paternalism to nations.  In civil rights, many argue national governments needed to overrule bad state decisions, for the good of those states.  So why not empower the United Nations to overrule what it sees as a bad decision by any nation, in the name of benefiting that nation?   

The reason for considering extremes is that simple arguments usually favor extremes. So you should either support an extreme, or find an argument complex enough to favor an intermediate position.  Why would national paternalism be a good idea, but international paternalism be a bad idea?

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Rational Agent Paternalism

While paternalism is about bias, it need not be about irrational bias.  In a 2003 Journal of Public Economics paper, I modeled product bans and warnings directed at completely-rational consumers, and chosen by a better-informed completely-rational regulator who only cares about economic welfare.   I found:

  • Even ideal regulators want to lie about product quality, to correct for other market failures.
  • Even a small temptation to lie makes consumers disbelieve most of what regulators say.
  • Regulators who can ban sometimes do, as consumers won’t believe severe warnings.
  • Consumers believe more severe warnings from regulators who can only warn. 
  • When regulators prefer to talk up quality (e.g., in health, school, investing), both regulators and consumers are better off if regulators cannot ban.

Yes, this model may be less relevant if irrational biases are central to paternalism.  But it at least gives us a concrete reference point.  Weather permitting, David Balan and I debate paternalism today. 

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Paternalism Is About Bias

Contributor David Balan and I meet next week (6-7pm Wed. Mar. 7, GMU, Mason Hall, Rm. D3) to debate "Paternalistic Policy:  Altruism or Arrogance?"  (I say "Arrogance.")  Here let me start to set the stage.

Paternalism is policy intended to benefit some people by limiting their choices, like a parent who stops a kid from playing in the street.  Examples include laws requiring professional licensing and product safety features, or banning risky buildings, food, drugs, and financial investments.

A warning is usually a feasible alternative to a requirement or ban.  Parents could just say "Playing in the street is a very bad idea," and if the kid believed them, the result would be the same as a ban.  Similarly, governments could just tell us that certain doctors or drugs are unsafe, instead of outlawing them. 

Now one can imagine inefficient warning systems, such as having to go look up each drug at some badly organized government website.  But we can also imagine no-fuss government warnings: let anything the government would have banned be sold only at special "would have banned" stores, whose customers pass a test showing they understand that regulators disapprove. 

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Asymmetric Paternalism

An article titled Regulation  for  Conservatives: Behavioral Economics and the Case for Asymmetric Paternalism provides a fairly good perspective on how paternalistic laws should be evaluated, but is a bit weak on the public choice considerations that should make us skeptical of laws. They provide good arguments showing that cognitive biases imply that a government run by angels ought to be sometimes paternalistic, because we can imagine a wide variety of laws which provide significant benefits to people who are acting irrationally while having much less effect on people who are acting irrationally. The examples in this paper show that’s it’s not hard to imagine laws like that appear to do this by mandating defaults that rational people can override, by requiring better disclosure, and by requiring delays for certain purchases. But the examples also show that it’s hard to tell whether a significant fraction of those laws are beneficial in practice.

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Quality Regs Say ‘High Is Good’

95% think doctors should be licensed. … 96% oppose legalizing crystal meth. (more)

One of the main ways that our world is not libertarian is that it is full of government rules requiring minimum quality levels for many kinds of products and services. We see this for food, drugs, building codes, auto/plane rules, allowed investments, censorship, professional licensing, school accreditation, sports equipment, and much more. Once you look for them, you find such rules everywhere. So a key basic puzzle is: why do we have so many min quality rules?

Here are some clues to keep in mind:

  1. Though these rules limit consumer choices, they have strong voter support.
  2. Such rules were far less common in the ancient world.
  3. Today these rules are extremely widespread, across many areas of life and types of societies and governments.
  4. These rules are implemented via many channels: liability law, regulatory agencies, and legislation.
  5. Poor nations tend to have lower standards, like rich nations did when they were poor, yet we see few exceptions for poor people or neighborhoods.
  6. Product bans are far more common than are official quality evaluations.
  7. Many such rules are retained even when they seem quite ineffective, such as laws against vaping (little health harm), recreational drugs, and prostitution.
  8. We don’t make exceptions for customers who can show that they clearly understand that the product is considered low quality.

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