Tag Archives: DiscountRates

Paternalism can be kind, just not to present-you

You may want to file this under ‘incredibly obvious’, but I haven’t seen it noted elsewhere.

Liberals and libertarians have an instinctive aversion to paternalism. Their key objection is: how can anyone else be expected to know what is good for you, better than you do?

This is usually true, but it neglects a coherent justification for many paternalistic policies that doesn’t require that anyone know more than you. The paternalist could be fine with their policy being bad for ‘present-you’ if it benefits ‘future-you’ even more. But don’t you care about your future self’s welfare too? Sure, but maybe not as much as they do, relative to your current welfare!

Confusion about the intent of the paternalistic policy is generated by the fact that it is natural to say “this policy exists to help you”, without noting which instance of ‘you’ it is meant to help – you now, you tomorrow, you in ten years’ time, and so on.

While this justification would make sense especially often where people engaged in ‘hyperbolic discounting’ and as a result were ‘time inconsistent’, it does not rely on that. All it requires is that,

  • there are things you could do now that would benefit your future self, at the expense of your present self, and;
  • the paternalists’ ‘altruistic’ discount rate for the target’s welfare is lower than the discount rate the target has for their own welfare.

The first is certainly true, while the latter is often true in my experience.

In the near-far construal theory often used on this blog, us-now and immediate gratification are both ‘near’, while ourselves in the future, other people, and other people in the future are all ‘far’. In far mode we will want to encourage other folks to act toward their future selves in ways our far view thinks they ought to – usually patiently.

More intuitively: it’s easier to stick to a commitment to help a friend stay on their diet, than it is to stay to our diet ourselves. We don’t enjoy seeing our friends go without ice cream, but we like to see them reach their and our idealised goals even more. As La Rochefoucauld observed, “We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.” You could add that we all have strength enough to bear the delayed gratification of others.

If a paternalist really does have a lower discount rate in this way, they could justify all kinds of interventions that benefit someone’s future self: preventing suicide, reducing smoking, encouraging exercise, requiring people to save for emergencies and retirement, and so on. I often find these policies distasteful, but as I support a moral discount rate of zero (on valuable experiences), and almost all people are impatient in their own lives, I can’t justify a blanket opposition. We don’t give people an unrestricted freedom to harm their children, or strangers, just because they don’t care much about them. Why then should we give a young woman unrestricted freedom to hurt her far-off 60 year old self, just because they happen to pass through the same body at different points in time? I care about the 60 year old too, perhaps even more than that young woman does, relative to herself.

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