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. 

The reason we don’t allow such stores seems obvious:  we expect people would shop there.  And their reason to shop also seems obvious:  just as kids do not always believe parents, citizens do not always believe regulators.  A regulator claim that no one should buy some product can seem overconfident and otherwise biased.   

On the other hand, regulators who choose requirements and bans instead of warnings seem to believe that citizens are biased to neglect regulator advice.  Thus bias claims seem to be central to paternalism; regulators and citizens each think the others are biased.   

To evaluate if paternalism is good or bad, we need more than the sort of evidence that would convince regulators that they are less biased than citizens, or that would convince citizens that they are less biased than regulators.  After all, we expect each group to be biased in underestimating their own bias.

Without such evidence, paternalism is just arrogance, i.e., an unsupported presumption by regulators of their own superiority.

Added: Many of you say paternalism is to protect the very stupid.  Would you support Would-Have-Banned stores with an min IQ rule?   If so, what would that IQ be? 

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  • conchis

    Robin, do you think that (a) Sunstein and Thaler’s “libertarian paternalism” ; and/or (b) Odysseus-strapping-himself-to-the-mast type situations (intra-self paternalism with government acting as the agent of one of the selves) could constitute exceptions to the above analysis?

  • JMG3Y

    So what is the social benefit of professional licensing? How would the way I go about selecting a physician change or would it? Physicians distinguish among themselves and their expertise levels by their voluntary system of board certification that goes far beyond state licensing through a process the profession established but I don’t think has any standing in the state licensing process. So isn’t it really the reverse; rather than establishing competence it is a means of control. Screw up badly enough and the state board will take away your license to practice in the state. And all evidence is that you have to screw up pretty bad before your license is pulled. Upon which, the license-less goes to another state that doesn’t have reciprocity. So is that really still paternalism?

  • JMG3Y

    Oops. “How would the way I go about selecting a physician change or would it?” should be “Without licensing, how would the way I go about selecting a physician change or would it?”

    My point is – it wouldn’t. Most physicians are licensed (and license-eligible in other states) after 4 years of medical school but their training continues through internships and residencies for even more years than they spent getting their MD degree. At the end of the residency, the training requirements of which are set by the specific voluntary board, they are “board eligible”. They then have to pass the board exam to become board-certified in that board.

    The list of boards is here

    I doubt a physician could get malpractice insurance to practice if they were not board certified but only had an MD degree and a state license.

  • Conchis, paternalism between the selves at different times, or paternalism that limits defaults rather than actions, are still paternalism, and can still be arrogant.

    JMG3Y, yes, without government licensing. there would still be private certification.

  • conchis

    setting defaults seems to me pretty analogous to setting up “would have banned” stores. they’re saying, “we think we might know better, but we’re not sure, so we’ll ultimately leave it up to you”. that strikes me as a rather different sort of arrogance.

  • George Orwell once said: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

    There’s a tradeoff in regulation, but it’s too brutal for most people to face. The tradeoff is that there are deeply stupid people in the world, and they will shop at these stores for banned products because their astrologer told them to, and they will get hurt. If there’s anything really dangerous in there, they will die. All the scary warning labels work great if you won the birth lottery and have a nice strong prefrontal cortex that can override temptations, but half the people have a below-median IQ and they’re not going to make out so well on this system. When’s the last time you had a nice, deep talk with someone who didn’t win the birth lottery, instead of one of your fellow university professors? When you talked to Verizon tech support?

    The brutal tradeoff: You can open stores for banned products, but people whose sole fault was to be born stupid will shop there and get hurt. There would be social benefits too, like the ability to use important medications that the FDA will take another five years to approve. These benefits will accrue to more people than just the cognitively advantaged. But there are stupid people and they will get hurt and they don’t necessarily deserve it. This is what people can’t face – they don’t wish to think of themselves as uncompassionate – and this is why society tries to impose regulations regardless of the cost-benefit tradeoff.

    Or to sum this up more sharply: Some poor, honest, well-intentioned, stupid mother of 5 kids will shop at a banned store and buy a Snake’s Sulfuric Acid Drink for her arthritis and die, leaving her orphaned children to cry on national television. Afterward the banned stores will be immediately closed down, based on that single case, regardless of their net benefit.

    Some libertarians will argue that, having made the choice to drink sulfuric acid despite the warning label, the woman deserved to die. This is not being tough-minded. This is people who can’t stand the thought of living in an unjust universe, so they change their morality to make the events that actually happened just. Tough-minded is saying, “No, she didn’t deserve to die, and yes, it was a horrible death, but we’re going to keep the shops open because we did this cost-benefit calculation.” Can you imagine a politician saying that? Neither can I. Society does not have the will to make certain kinds of choices.

    • JW Ogden

      I agree with your point but not without reservations. I talk quite a bit to with the bottom 30% of the IQ spectrum and I find less susceptible to some types of disinformation than the above IQ people. You almost have to have an above average IQ to buy into some wrong ideas. For example the idea that all natural foods are health and unnatural foods are not, fear of GMO’s, fear of the population explosion, fear of peak oil, ideas like vitamin c will cure the common cold and prevent cancer, anti-vaccination autism link, socialism and communism. All of the above seemed more prevalent among the up half of education and IQ people but who have never directly studied the relevant area.
      Also people are pretty tough they are unlikely to just die from these things before they realize that do not work.

    • You can open stores for banned products, but people whose sole fault was to be born stupid will shop there and get hurt.

      Do the stupid themselves tend to favor or oppose paternalistic regulation? If they favor it, is it because they realize they need extra protection? Anyone know?

  • Paul Litvak


    I think you are missing something important, which is that findings from social psychology (e.g. opt in vs. opt out) suggest that it is nearly impossible for a government not to be paternalist. In many cases the key question becomes one of “which defaults”, and it while it might be arrogant to assume that one knows which, empirical research can often be an effective guide. I think it is biased to always assume that any kind of policy intervention is arrogant, especially when many of the concrete policy lessons have yet to be implemented. For an example of just how deaf our government is to social psychology’s lessons, look no further than the prescription drug benefit with its multitudes of impossible to understand options and resulting lack of signup. This is very salient in my mind at the moment, as I just saw a talk about this by Eldar Shafir.

    Paul Litvak

  • It’d be interesting to see a rational debate some time. I’d love it if in this debate, the first guy got up and made his statement, and then the second guy stood up and said, “you know, you’re right”, and then sat down. End of debate.

  • Øyvind


    The opt in vs. opt out findings do not say anything about whether politicians are biased or not.

    And other paternalistic papers (like Schwartz ‘The Tyranny of Choice’) have a tendency to cite empirical findings where people do not have access to tools they have in “real settings” (like a calculator or a pen). If the researcher give someone a hard problem, it will be easy to discover new biases if the research subject is limited by time and resources.

    The findings from psychology are therefore not sufficient enough to make general conclusions.

  • Matthew


    I don’t think Robin is complaining about defaults here. He is complaining about things that are completely forbidden, enforced by gun-weilding government agents.

  • mobile

    There’s a lot more than bias at work here, there are also preferences. Consumers and regulators can agree on facts but disagree on values, risk tolerance, etc. It’s unlikely that regulators have significanly more data about the hazards of cigarette smoking, for example, than the average American (nowadays, anyway). Then it’s a matter of political economy as to whether one set of preferences will be imposed in regulation.

  • Eliezer, if you you mean to imply that the main argument of libertarians who object to a cost-benefit calculation is one of desert, I’m pretty sure you are wrong. More likely arguments would be that

    a) we have no right to restrict someone’s freedom even in cases where they are likely to unintentionally harm themselves

    or that

    b) benefits to some people do not justify restricting the freedom of others.

    Of course, others would in fact argue that a cost-benefit calculation favours deregulation.

  • Simon, I have no problem with either argument. The problem I have isn’t with libertarians, it’s with the media and the political climate. The problem is that it’s not politically possible to stand up and say, “We have no right to restrict someone’s freedom even in cases where they are likely to unintentionally harm themselves. I admit this means that some people who don’t deserve it will die horrible deaths.” No one is allowed to concede that second sentence.

  • Hal Finney said, “It’d be interesting to see a rational debate some time. I’d love it if in this debate, the first guy got up and made his statement, and then the second guy stood up and said, “you know, you’re right”, and then sat down. End of debate.”

    Those kinds of debates don’t last very long, so you’re less likely to see them. You’re also less likely to remember them. In fact, when I agree with someone, I usually don’t post a comment because I don’t feel I have any new information to contribute – a habit I’m trying to break to lessen that bias.

  • Eliezer, a very well written comment, that could have been a fine post on its own. I notice you focus entirely on making clear to us just how stupid many consumers are, but you say nothing about how stupid many regulators are.

    Conchis, is it more paternalistic to ban cars than to ban chewing gum, because cars cost more? Requiring that certain choices be defaults raises the costs to people who wanted to choose other defaults. The effect may be smaller than requiring the choices themselves, but it can still be a substantial effect.

    Paul, I don’t understand what you mean by saying “it is nearly impossible for a government not to be paternalist.” Do you mean voters are eager for paternalistic policies?

  • Robin,

    You know, you’re right.

  • Defining the term “paternalism” as policy that limits choices introduced an egregious bias to this discussion. I can see the truth of my dictionary’s definition that says a paternalistic government is one that provides for people’s needs without giving them responsibility. Regulation to reduce risk is far different from removing much of people’s responsibility to direct their lives. Where is the scholarship here that reviews the public health disasters that led to government regulation today being what it is? It wasn’t a matter of some bureaucrats sitting around wanting to control people that started government regulation.

    Whenever I hear someone say that no one has a right to restrict another’s freedom, I wonder what system of right and wrong is under discussion. The most important commandment in Christianity is to love God. The second is to love neighbors. “What is love?” is a difficult question, but skipping ahead to a conclusion, I would say banning trans fat is an act of love. Moreover I would call it fraternal love, not paternal love. The objects of this act are not under someone’s thumb as a child would be. They have tremendous freedom in food choices. It’s true that many people are not harmed by trans fat at all. But its benefit is negligible, and it’s harm to a few people is clear. Do you really think brotherly love is served enough by warning labels that ruin aesthetics and cause sensory overload or cynicism in many people?

    There is a hero of medicine and epidemiology named John Snow. In 1854 he did the experiment of removing the handle of the Broad Street pump to stop a cholera epidemic, which up to then was a disease of uncertain origin. Tradition is that the epidemic promptly stopped. Revisionist studies say maybe it petered on a little, but everyone agrees that here was both the best available treatment for this cholera epidemic and proof of its cause. This was not paternalism. John Snow didn’t adopt an entire neighborhood as its cult leader. He performed an act of brotherly love.

    Libertarians can keep making the same arguments they make now about “paternalism”, “the nanny state”, even against brotherly love if they want to use a more honest label. I don’t see that many consumers are behind those arguments, as biased as they are, or Libertarians would get more votes at elections. I suppose many consumers would just as soon not have to evaluate all possible risks from an unregulated market. That way they can use their freedom on other things.

  • TGGP

    DavidD, for the love of your God, please stop loving me.

  • David, notice that I did not question the regulator’s motives, but instead asked about their judgment.

  • Eliezer, I think you should reconsider your decision to break your habit of not expressing agreement.

    Your expression of agreement does not supply very much useful information because, first, your opinion is not independent of the evidence (at least it certainly should not be), so if the evidence has already been adequately explained the additional informational value of your opinion is greatly reduced. And second, if people are familiar with your arguments then they may be able to anticipate your opinion to some extent. Only if what you say is somewhat surprising or unanticipated is it useful. If someone is not familiar with your writing they probably don’t care what you think.

    Also, there is a human bias towards expressing agreement with the standard views of a group which one wants to be considered a member of. You may encourage this by apparently giving permission to indulge in it as a role model, even if you yourself avoid bias. And if too many people post comments simply agreeing with others, it will cause a dramatic increase in comments with little useful information.

  • billswift

    There are problems with both competence and motives in the real world. For problems with motive see Public Choice Theory and Jerry Pournelle’s “Iron Law of Bureaucracy”. For competence problems, the clearest statement I know of is Thomas Sowell’s “Knowledge & Decisions” on the benefits of local knowledge.

    “Regulation to reduce risk is far different from removing much of people’s responsibility to direct their lives.”
    Regulation coercively overrides a person’s right to direct his own life. It cannot remove a person’s responsibility, since every person is responsible for everything they ever do – including kowtowing to bureaucrats.

    For Eliezar – “The end result of protecting fools from the effects of their folly is to fill the world with fools.” – Herbert Spencer (from memory, but I think I got it close enough). Spend Friday evening in a Wal-Mart, the world is pretty full of them now.

  • “The most important commandment in Christianity is to love God. The second is to love neighbors.”

    What’s wrong with this picture? Hey, DavidD, I’ve got a new morality for you. The first commandment is to love Eliezer Yudkowsky. The second is to love neighbors.

    This doesn’t cause you to suspect my motives? Oh, never mind.

    Anyway, billswift, I don’t expect biological Homo sapiens to last enough longer for any policies adopted now to have an important effect on future generations’ genetic makeup. If I did, it would be quite a dilemma.

  • Douglas Knight

    but you say nothing about how stupid many regulators are.

    I thought EY implied very strongly that regulators are smarter than most of the population. Regardless of how smart they are, they seem to me to do well at their job of being risk-averse. EY says that the current climate makes them risk-averse, but public choice suggests it’s pretty natural.

  • Calca

    I actually disagree with Eliezer’s “stupid people” theory. Stores across the country sell ropes, and all kinds of other products that could be easily misused. What about gun shops?

  • If an anecdote is at all useful here, I have one.

    Canada regulates cigarette packaging by mandating that any tobacco product be covered almost half way by PSA’s trumpeting ugly images of decaying teeth, lungs, and other factoids approved by regulators loudly announcing just how badly smoking screws one’s health.

    In my time here, I’ve known all kinds of smokers. Not one has ever disagreed with anything these ads or regulators said. They AGREE that smoking is bad for your health; they’re not actually using any accusation of bias on the part of regulators to justify their smoking. Exactly why varies. sometimes it’s addiction; sometimes it’s plain apathy. But it is very seldom based on disagreement with the claims themselves.

  • While I don’t have much to say about the judgment of regulators compared to the rest of us, this passage made me pause:

    “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.”

    I disagree with the first sentence, even though it is qualified with ‘usually’ and ‘feasible’. There is, to me, a large difference between allowing, say, pools of acid in a park as long as there are warning signs, and banning them outright. The difference is that people cannot fall into pools of acid if there aren’t any.
    In other words, a warning about a dangerous thing does not actually eliminate the dangerous thing. Therefore, to me, a warning is not usually a feasible alternative to a ban. I’m not saying that we should start banning everything dangerous; just that there is a substantial difference between warnings and bans. Now, I see the point that those who would make the call about what to ban and what not to are not necessarily any wiser than the rest of us. But, to me, this seems to lead to an argument for better training and oversight of regulation, not for eliminating bans and replacing them with warnings.
    I’d also like to mention, that at least based on my own personal experience, kids don’t play in the street because they disbelieve their parents’ warnings. I didn’t tell myself that my mom was full of crap when she told me not to play in the street, that it was perfectly safe. I just didn’t fully consider the ramifications of my actions. People don’t look at the Surgeon General’s warning on a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of gin and say “This label’s full of crap, I don’t believe it.”

  • Douglas, you may think Eliezer “implied very strongly” but when asked to clarify he did not say that.

    Nato, smokers say that their enjoyment from smoking outweighs the health costs, while regulators say smokers misjudge this tradeoff.

    Ocmpoma, you can’t accidentally fall into a would-Have-Banned store and pass the test showing you understand regulators don’t approve the stuff there. Your parents anticipated that you “didn’t fully consider the ramifications” of playing in the street, which is why they considered your evaluation to be biased. And the basic question remains even for trained and overseen regulators, just as it does for trained and overseen citizens.

  • billswift

    Eliezar, I agree about the genetic makeup problem, but the quote applies just as strongly to people learning from their own mistakes (as well as their ancestors’).

    I can’t remember the source, but a few weeks ago I saw an essay on the Web that said that almost everyone, including smokers, **over-estimates** the health risks of smoking.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Just looking at the narrow question of the bias of government regulators for the moment, it does seem that life expectancy is higher among more regulated countries like Sweden, Canada and France than among less regulated countries like the USA. Countries with less restrictive road regulations (such as indonesia) seem to have higher accident rates.

    So it seems that in terms of effectiveness bias, if we accept avoiding death as the major aim, then regulators seem less biased than consumers.

    The moral arguments are separate, and can’t be decided on objective grounds. Though Eliezer’s argument is relevant here – libertarian type arguments appeal mainly to the highly intelligent, able to make good choices, and thus the one who would benefit, rather than suffer, from deregulation. Regulation appeals more to those who will benefit from it. This may be a bias worth looking into.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    people learning from their own mistakes

    You need to be alive and coherent to do this; this would imply that regulators should still ban fatal or crippling options (the argument of learning from your ancestors isn’t really relevant here – after all, regulators can learn from your ancestors just as well as you can).

  • Everyone, note I added a question to the post.

  • Requiring a minimum IQ is a political impossibility, so the ethics are irrelevant. Maybe you could get away with requiring a bachelor’s degree for entry.

  • Robin: “Smokers say that their enjoyment from smoking outweighs the health costs, while regulators say smokers misjudge this tradeoff.”

    Where do smokers say that? The planet of Homo economicuses? I’ve never heard such a statement. Smokers say they’re hooked and can’t take the pain of withdrawal. Beginning smokers are young and stupid and do it because it’s cool; if they were thinking twenty years ahead and filling out a cost-benefit sheet, they wouldn’t be smoking.

    The fact that a beginning smoker will regret the decision later is overwhelmingly predictable. Furthermore, beginning smokers don’t seem to have any strong arguments that their future self’s predictable opinion will be biased, whereas we can easily sympathize with the future self’s argument that their past self was biased. I think it’s fair to label smoking a “huge mistake” rather than an informed decision. We label conjunction fallacy a “fallacy” in part because most people predictably repudiate it once it’s explained to them.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Added: Many of you say paternalism is to protect the very stupid. Would you support Would-Have-Banned stores with an min IQ rule? If so, what would that IQ be?

    You can be very smart in one area and colossally stupid in another… I’d say the (practical) advantage of paternalism is that you don’t have to be smart in every decision you make in life (for ex. if Lawyers and Doctors are credited by a government/semi-official body, then you don’t have to look up rival reference systems, compare them, be knowledgeable, etc… whenever you have a minor legal or medical decision to make). Under a paternalistic system, you can eat food without doing the research, breath the air without being a pollution expert, etc…

    However, if you are knowledgeable in some domain (maybe more than the regulators), then it’s no real practical problem for you to indulge in it.

    So instead of a Would-have-banned store with a minimum IQ requirement, I’d support one where you have to demonstrate knowledge of the product you’re buying, an honest understanding of all the ways it is “bad” for you. Informed consent, in a way, with an emphasis on “informed”.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Just thought of an advantage of the “demonstrate knowledge of the product you’re buying”. If a new problem comes to light on a “Would-have-banned” product, then you don’t have to re-regulate it or anything. Just check that people buying it are informed and articulate about the new risks…

  • Eliezer, here is a smoker who says that.

  • Douglas Knight

    Douglas, you may think Eliezer “implied very strongly” but when asked to clarify he did not say that.

    Looking back at his original comment, I’ll strike the “very strongly.” I’m not sure why I wrote that sentence, anyway, since I don’t think the intelligence of the regulator is so important if I disagree with his goals.

  • Doug S.

    Regarding tobacco: Nicotine meets all the requirements to be classified as a Schedule 1 drug. Just like marijuana, it has officially recognized medical use and has a high potential for abuse. What’s the difference between say, a tobacco farmer in Virginia, a marijuana farmer in California, a poppy farmer in Afghanistan, and a coca farmer in Colombia? Absolutely nothing, except that the tobacco farmer is the only one who can legally sell his product in the United States. All arguments in favor of drug prohibition apply equally well to tobacco as any other drug. To quote Charles Dickens, “The law is a ass – an idiot.”.

  • Should There Be Compulsory Attendance for the Balan-Hanson Debate?

    David Balan and Robin Hanson, two of the smartest voices on Overcoming Bias, are having a debate on Paternalism this…

  • Noah Yetter

    Added: Many of you say paternalism is to protect the very stupid. Would you support Would-Have-Banned stores with an min IQ rule? If so, what would that IQ be?

    Why should the very stupid be protected at all? Why in particular should they be subsidized by the rest of us? The argument that we are all smart in some areas and stupid in others is noted, but ultimately not compelling.

  • As to whether we could open stores requiring passage of a min IQ test, don’t we need a way to ensure that the intelligent customers don’t turn around and sell the banned items to the stupid? The paternalistic government could claim, plausibly, to be in the right by banning products outright on such administrative grounds.

  • Personally, I don’t want to use my intelligence to investigate the safety of drugs. I have other things to think about. I want a paternalistic system to do that for me, and I’m generally happy with the job it does.

  • Scott, if you can’t prohibit resales, you can’t prohibit sales, and so you can’t ban in the first place.

    Steve, things not banned are not therefore required. The whole point of the Would-Have-Banned stores is that they are easy to ignore if you want to ignore them.

  • Paul Gowder

    So suppose both consumers and regulators are biased. Consumers are biased to not believe regulators, even with respect to stuff in the Death Store. And regulators are biased to over-regulate. It doesn’t seem likely that the Death Store will correct for consumer biases, so we have to choose a bias.

    Which bias would be less harmful? For some things (potentially life-saving drugs) the consumer bias might be less harmful. But for most things (tobacco, crack) it seems like we’d prefer the regulator bias, if we have to pick.

  • Isaac

    Robin: “Smokers say that their enjoyment from smoking outweighs the health costs, while regulators say smokers misjudge this tradeoff.”

    Eliezer: “Beginning smokers are young and stupid and do it because it’s cool; if they were thinking twenty years ahead and filling out a cost-benefit sheet, they wouldn’t be smoking.”

    Eliezer, it sounds to me like you agree with Robin. Beginning smokers are not unaware of the health effects, they simply believe that the present benefits of coolness outweigh the discounted negative health effects. And you believe that they misjudge this tradoff.

  • Will this debate be recorded and available for download as an MP3?

  • One thing we might see if these kind of stores came into existence is that regulators would become even more strict than they are today. Since they can argue that you can always get the product if you really want it, their bans would not have as much negative effect as they do now. This should tip the tradeoff towards more bans and more regulation.

  • The case of smoking has additional subtleties that make it a poor example to generalize from, I think. While I’m not a smoker myself, my understanding is that it delivers some short-term benefits to cognition and in some cases appearance (easier to be relatively thin), at the cost of long-term health. This is not necessarily an irrational tradeoff, despite the fact that most people regret it when they reach the “long term”. In fact, one can argue that it would be in a nation’s interest for government to encourage adult smoking, then let most of the smokers die when they have lung cancer without spending resources on giving them health care (since by then most of them aren’t very productive any more)…

  • zzz

    Dog of Justice, that would seem to be a grave violation of freedom. Would you feel the same about the govt “encouraging” poor old ladies to buy sulphuric acid drinks? If smoking is dangerous, the government (or the courts, in a strictly libertarian system) has a role in making sure that potential customers are fully informed of all relevant risks.

  • I am not suggesting that a modern-day government actually do that!! Instead, I’m just saying that an amoral utilitarian calculation could yield that conclusion.

  • It’d be interesting to see a rational debate some time. I’d love it if in this debate, the first guy got up and made his statement, and then the second guy stood up and said, “you know, you’re right”, and then sat down. End of debate.”

    That’s actually how most debates between ordinary people (i.e. not professional debaters) end.

    Further, cranking back way, way upthread, to the reference to the Broad Street Pump. This is a good example of a fundamental problem here: the difference between paternalism with regard to individual consequences, and with regard to social consequences. When John Snow removed the handle from the pump, he wasn’t trying to constrain the freedom of any given individual to consume cholera-bearing water. The alternative was cholera-bearing water for everybody in that pump’s catchment area.

    Now, there are strong and well-rehearsed arguments that one should not be constrained in one’s freedom to make mistakes. But this is only rational if the costs of your mistakes fall on you and you alone. There are quite a lot of mistakes whose costs fall on others, which represents an infringement of their freedom, if you want to use a libertarian framing.

    Products are quite often banned because of their social externalities, not their effects on the user. (A current example: Australia just banned incandescent light bulbs. Now, putting them in the Banned Shop would solve nothing, as a large part of the costs – increased CO2 emissions and energy resource depletion – aren’t payable by the user.)

    More broadly, the Broad Street Pump example may show something of a bias in libertarian thought: the assumption that you live somewhere where there isn’t cholera in the water supply.

  • Paternalistic Policy: Altruism or Arrogance??

    Is this debate about the internal states of the paternalizers, whether they have the attitude of Arrogance or whether they believe themselves to be Altruistic? If so, you should realize that they could be both arrogant and altruistic, or neither, as well as either, and in any case, why does it matter what their internal state is? Shouldn’t we be concerned about the effects of the putatively paternalistic policies, rather than the emotional states of the paternalizers?

    I assume that you are concerned about the policies, and just succumbed to the temptation of alliterative titling.

    Paternalistic policies are put in place ultimately by elected officials, and their overwhelming positive consequence for consumers is that they reduce information costs (of finding out all the relevant information about the bannable items) and the decision costs (of having to decide, or decide not to decide, to consume them). If the results of the bans are bad, the voters can change them, like they unbanned DDT or alcohol.

  • Bruce, don’t take the debate title too seriously. And you are ignoring that Would-Have-Banned stores eliminate the information and decision costs just as well, for those who decide to never use them.

  • Dog of Justice above discussed smoking and suggested that the government might encourage it, apparently because it is supposed to be beneficial when they die? He didn’t really explain this benefit too well.

    But another aspect is the possibility that lung cancer will be treatable within a few decades. Medicine is advancing quickly and huge amounts of research money is going into cancer. A young person today who starts smoking can realistically expect not to get cancer for 40 years or more. (Actually only 18% of heavy smokers even get lung cancer, so he has over an 80% chance of never getting it at all.) If he does get lung cancer late in life, it’s likely that we will have greatly improved treatments or even cures in the 2050 time frame. He could have a lifetime of the pleasures and health benefits of smoking, without the negative consequences faced by older smokers today. It might be quite a rational bet.

    This is an example of those interesting cases where actions and technologies far in the future have significant impact on our choices and decisions today. Global warming is another one. It’s tough because the future is so unknowable, but different plausible scenarios strongly alter our optimal actions today.

  • Robin, am I to conclude that you accept that eliminating the information and decision costs is a desirable thing, whether it is done by banning paternalistically or, as you approvingly suggest, by deciding never to use the Would-Have-Banned stores?

    And if it is a desirable thing, then wouldn’t those who do it have done an Altruistic thing, whether or not garnished by Arrogance?

    I plan to be at your debate, though it’s not a fit night out for man nor beast.

  • Of course, it is obvious that the Decision not to use the Would-Have-Banned stores does not eliminate Decision costs, since the Decision not to use the stores requires a Decision, which is obviated if ban is instituted.

  • Eric Hansen

    +1 for Alex
    The majority of an individual’s decisions have external effects that wouldn’t enter his rational decision making process (side note: I don’t think that normally exists anyways). So the gov’s paternalism would be acting to minimize personal bias in favor of an objective pov (side note: I don’t think that normally exists anyways).

    I really would like to go balls to the wall libertarian and say “if you want to snort coke day and night, you obviously have a different metric for ‘quality of life’ than me and you are probably maximizing it, so bully for you”. But I can’t take that stance if that person is treated in an emergency room with public money.

    I’d say if you argue that paternalism is altruistic you are arrogant – and that the government only exists (as per Balan’s post) to correct market failures, where paternalism and redistribution exist only to the extent that they are a subset of that market correcting function. Consumers are acting only in their personal best interest; even with the regulators’ bias they are closer to acting in society’s best interest.

  • I didn’t discuss the benefit in further detail because my main point was that smoking is an unusual case that doesn’t generalize to the broader paternalism debate.

    As I understand it, the benefits are (i) a minor increase in productivity, since smoking apparently improves cognition in the short term, and (ii) a minor decrease in expenses supporting retired people. (This may, of course, be more than cancelled out by the drawback of people developing serious lung cancer long before they retire. I really have no idea how this amoral arithmetic works out; I just know that most other cases of paternalism are simpler.)

  • @Hansen: What I’m driving at is really that there are some ideas that have been dealt with rather well in political philosophy, but OB seems to be re-inventing from first principles in line with some participants’ biases. “Paternalism” here is roughly equivalent to “government”, but it’s a negative framing technique to use this pejoratively value-laden term.

    That externalities, tragedies of the commons, and such exist is both obvious and trivial. That something governmentlike is required to solve them is less trivial but as obvious.

    But even more broadly, isn’t one of the founding ideas of OB that we should be modest with regard to own beliefs? – in which case, the possibility of our own stupidity is well worth considering. Engineers who work with safety-critical systems assume that the users will, eventually, get it wrong, and therefore try to design so as to make it harder to make mistakes than to get it right.

  • What a wonderful debate! I do so hope that there will be more. I was devastated to have arrived so late, when I left Arlington an hour ahead and it took me an hour and fifteen minutes, so I missed the whole first part which can be so important (the snow was what did it, and all the sirens!), but what impressed me so was how difficult! the whole issue is, and how well the two sides presented themselves, so that I was quite left hanging as to which side I should take; perhaps it’s like juries, which I suppose we have to have because there are some things that are SO hard to decide, and yet Have to be decided, I wonder what it would be like to have something like the Oxford Union has for their debates, where you end up with a vote! I do hope you will announce when you are having more discussions or debates, because I think it is so important to have a real confrontation. Anyway, thank you so much for announcing it and giving us the opportunity to see it.

  • Stores for selling banned products

    Paternalists aren’t going to like this idea: “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. The…

  • Should some additives be banned fromfood?

    Regarding the latest evidence suggesting food additives harm childrens health, Tom Watson says this:
    Until junior Watson was able to tell that not all food on the end of a small blue plastic spoon was the same, I’d not fully appreciated just h…

  • A lot of regulation deals with externalities not paternalism. Are there any cases of regulations not related to (at least presumed) externalities that aren’t outright stupid?

  • “Scott, if you can’t prohibit resales, you can’t prohibit sales, and so you can’t ban in the first place. “

    That seems a pretty flawed statement. It can be easier to ban manufacture of the goods that would go into the Banned Store than to ban resale of individual items. A bottle of sulfuric acid is nigh-untraceable, but the lab or factory making the acid isn’t. If you’re a teen who wants booze or cigs, you just have to find a friendly adult who’ll bring them out of 7-11 to you; if you want pot or crack, you have to find a way to plug into the illegal drug networks. Obviously not impossible, or even super-hard perhaps, but certainly harder.

    • sd

      Actual teenagers typically report that access to weed is easier than booze.

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  • Brent Dill

    Arise, ancient thread!

    > Would you support Would-Have-Banned stores with an min IQ rule? If so, what would that IQ be?

    I would argue that that IQ depends on the IQ and Machiavellianist skills of any potential marketer dedicated to convincing people that the government is wrong to ban the product.

    I.e., the “minimum IQ to disregard regulation” depends inherently on the maximum IQ being currently applied to convince people to disregard regulation. Since there’s no incentive to accurately measure this, I don’t see how an IQ minimum will help.

  • istvan

    Smart and malicious people would buy stuff from the Would-Have-Banned store and sell it to stupid people.

  • Anonymous

    This old post misses the central point of paternalism: Dominance.

    “Protecting people from themselves” is not about protecting people. It is about dominating people.

    A policy maker has no incentive to give a rodent’s rectum about, say, strangers dying from drug overdoses. He just wants the status gratification of telling people what to do and being praised for it, at the same time.