Who’s scared of paternalism?

Eric has pointed me to the discussion that happened at Cato Unbound over libertarian/new paternalism. It went a bit like this:

Glen Whitman alleges:

New paternalist policies, and indeed the intellectual framework of new paternalism itself, create a serious risk of slippery slopes toward ever more intrusive paternalism.

Richard Thaler (a founding father of LP) replies:

[The] risk of the slippery slope appears to be a figment of Professor Whitman’s imagination… Slope-mongering is a well-worn political tool used by all sides in the political debate to debunk any idea they oppose. For example, when the proposal was made to replace the draft with an all-volunteer army, the opponents said this would inevitably lead to all kinds of disastrous consequences because we were turning our military into a band of mercenaries… Instead of slope-mongering we should evaluate proposals on their merits.

My favourite commentary on the debate was Robin Hanson’s:

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.

It highlights how the argument often ignores the key normative question: how paternalistic should governments be? I’m constantly surrounded by people arguing from a fairly libertarian, utilitarian perspective so I’m curious about how the other half thinks. For instance, what’s the justification for trying to stamp out smoking? Which modern philosophers have supported positions that economists would refer to as hard paternalism, and why?

  • Joe Connell

    Certainly the kind of moral conservatism (which is more overt in the US than here) is fine with paternalism.
    But I think the same behavioural science that informs LP can reasonably be interpreted as supporting outright paternalism in the more extreme cases, for example with regards to addiction.

    • Clearly there are plenty of people who are fine with it, but I just don’t know what philosophical basis it has. Most likely that’s because I have no expertise in philosophy, so I’m hoping for some enlightenment!

      I don’t think behavioural economics would claim to support hard paternalist interventions, even in the case of addiction. The internality argument that they roll out is an attempt to justify taxes in a way that requires reference only to the smoker’s preferences. I think you’d need another party’s preferences to be imposed ot call it hard paternalism.

      • Internalities namecheck individual preferences, but that’s about it. If I can claim that your true preferences, known to me by divine revelation rather than by your demonstrated preference, are X and that I have right to override your demonstrated preferences on the basis of it, how’s that much different from Torquemada claiming he knows what’s good for your soul and that the thumbscrew and the stake are really in your best interest?

        Internalities can give an argument for subsidizing voluntary self-control devices. Beyond that…. 

        • The demand for precommitment devices reveals information about true preferences, so it’s not htat much of a stretch.

        • There it’s a revealed preference! But we can’t impute back from some people’s choices to buy those precommitment devices to that it would be utility enhancing to have them imposed on everybody absent possibly costly opt-out mechanisms. 

          Otherwise Torquemada can use evidence of voluntary conversions as justifying mandatory ones. 

        • Sure, the best solution would be to have precommitment devices available. If that is not possible, for whatever reason, then taxes may be second best if the costs of heterogeneity are outweighed by the costs of having no mechanism to deal with X. After all, interventions exist in the world we have, not the one we wish existed.