The Costs of Paternalism


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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22 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    “Among non-libertarians, there’s a strong tendency to collapse all the different types of costs together. You’re unfree if you have a family you feel obliged to support. You’re unfree if you live far from civilization. You’re unfree if you get cancer. You’re unfree if your personal tastes are expensive. You’re unfree — I infer — if you’re thrown in a prison camp. Just another type of cost to pay. Something seems way off here to me.”

    Perhaps what seems way off is that you are presenting a weird ass strawman. Maybe I’m really missing something, but i can’t think of anybody or belief that you accurately characterizing.

    “(These choices, you’re told along the way, coincide with your “true” preferences. A remarkable feat of administrative insight.)”

    And again, this sounds more like libertarian/ conservative smear at those they don’t agree with then anything to reality based. If there is a basis in it, then it is no more then what people of every belief assume, that if everything was done their way things would be just ducky.

    But more to how people of differing beliefs think, is the quesiton or use of the word paternalism. How is that defined? What is the difference between public good and paternalism? It seems like the shallow libertarian view defines everything done by gov as paternalism, which is fine with me. that view is morally pure, clear and so easily mockable.Report

    • @greginak, As to paternalists being able to discern people’s true preferences, this is a very common assertion. It’s found in Nudge as well as in the theoretical literature, as cited by Whitman. Indeed, Thaler repeats it in his response essay. If this claim is a “smear,” then it’s a smear the new paternalists are making against themselves.

      As to conflating political with other types of freedom, see the previous issue of Cato Unbound, in which lead essayists David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan make precisely this move. Even my colleague Will Wilkinson made a limited step in that direction recently:

      At a recent Cato event, I was having lunch with some donors to the Institute. The man sitting next to me had run a successful business for decades. I asked him what attracted him to running his own business. He said that being his own boss and making a good deal of money gave him the freedom to do what he wanted to do, and that this is important to him. Now, we could say that this gentleman is confused about the norms of English usage, and that he should have spoken not of freedom but of the value of independence and the perquisites of wealth. But it seems to me that he knows perfectly well how to speak English. I understood him immediately.

      As an observation about ordinary language, this seems inarguable to me, and not remotely a strawman. As a claim about politics, it seems a disaster. Which is what I was trying to say above.Report

      • @Jason Kuznicki, The issue at hand is notoriously subtle. How do we know what our true preferences really are? Together with Gidon Felsen, I have been reviewing the concept of autonomy from the perspective of neuroscience and I can assure you that the data are clear on the following points: (1) We have the ability to reflect deeply on matters, which is good; (2) Sometimes our choices may be rational (in the sense of being in our best interest) but other times they are clearly not; and (3) Our decisions can and are often affected by external influences of which we are not aware.

        It is really this latter point that is most important and should bring the libertarians roaring into the Thaler and Sunstein camp. Consider for a moment the power of peer pressure. The data quite clearly show that the decisions that are brains make regarding consumer choice are affected by what we see around us, with the most powerful effect being the overt wealth of one’s brother-in-law! In the media-saturated world in which we live, it would be naive to assume that our choices are not affected by myriad influences. So the question to the libertarian is this: How can we possibly be free when a marketing expert (be they commercial or political) can subtly nudge us to pursue a course of their choosing rather than ours? One may argue about specific nudges that Thaler and Sunstein champion in their campaign of libertarian paternalism, but is it better to let marketing executives operating in secret nudge us or government operating under the constraints of transparency imposed by modern media?

        I’m with Thaler and Sunstein on this one.Report

        • Avatar lukas says:

          @Peter B. Reiner, if, as you assert, “our decisions can and are often affected by external influences of which we are not aware,” doesn’t the same hold true for the decisions made by the nudgers? Why can we assume that they are less susceptible to those influences than those whom they claim to unshackle from irrationality? By which magic do they become perfectly rational, unlike the rest of us?Report

          • Avatar Mahesh Paolini-Subramanya says:

            That, however, tends to take us towards solipsism, no? We can always come up with some never-ending spiral of ratiocination, where all decisions are bad, and the best decision is no decision (which is a decision in and as of itself, and maybe what was intended, thus continuing the spiral…)Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

              @Mahesh Paolini-Subramanya,

              Indeed. I somewhat regret not having had a martini last night, a decision I made based on some irrational self-denial and unnecessary economizing. Having one wouldn’t have hurt me in the least, and — in the sober light of morning — I conclude that my true preference didn’t lie with abstaining.

              Should I get a rebate on the liquor tax? In the interests of the new paternalism?Report

          • @lukas, I make no assertion that the nudgers are perfectly rational. Rather, I suggest that the straw man of libertarian thought is that we are unaffected by the thoughts and actions of others in the real world in which we live. Given this state of affairs, I am loathe to give the marketing mavens free reign in shaping my decisions, and I am particularly suspect of any philosophy that abandons those who are less well endowed with the ability to detect the subterfuge. Therein lies the dilemma.Report

            • Avatar lukas says:

              @Peter B. Reiner, the nudgers must (1) identify “those who are less well endowed with the ability to detect subterfuge”, (2) ascertain their “true preferences” and (3) design and deliver the nudges that will make them act according to those true preferences. Rationality is required at every step of the way, but bias (whether from subterfuge or from more benign sources) is bound to creep in via the universal mechanisms you so aptly described above, and good intentions can’t keep that from happening.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        @Jason Kuznicki,

        Using the example of a person who feels being there own boss makes them more free is a reasonable example of your point. But having cancer as being less free? Or expensive personal tastes make you unfree? Maybe somebody has said it, but that just sounds convoluted, peculiar and rare, so I don’t’ see how it makes for much of a point.

        I think the smear I hear (ha I rymhed) is in assuming people are paternalists instead of working towards, as they see it, the public good. Now it is fair enough to see them as wrong headed or bossy or whatever. But the kind of argument you are making just elides the entire possibility of a Public Good or other people having valid views and goes straight to -boy they sure are paternalists and they don’t understand freedom the correct way that I do.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:


          But having cancer as being less free? Or expensive personal tastes make you unfree? Maybe somebody has said it, but that just sounds convoluted, peculiar and rare, so I don’t’ see how it makes for much of a point.

          Is this not almost the whole philosophy of Thoreau? That having expensive tastes and possessions enslaves us too? We could easily add Rousseau to the argument, and many of the followers of each. The idea is neither convoluted nor unusual. It’s very, very common. “Simplify, simplify…”

          As to which camp has the better idea of freedom… well, that’s exactly the debate I had hoped to set up at Cato Unbound, and it seems to be developing nicely. I will continue to watch it unfold with great interest. Whether or not my own views are correct, I have the strongest possible interest in our getting the question right as a society.Report

          • Avatar greginak says:

            @Jason Kuznicki,

            That is a reasonable reply. I’m a Less is More person who has some affection for Thoreau. I don’t see the simplify mentality or Thoreau as being exactly dominant in America. Hell saying Less is More to most people will get mostly blank stares, a pat on the head along with being told how cute that is or people desperately reaching for a catalog or their Hummer keys to defend themselves from being infected. So at most it is a debate between people on the fringes of society ( simplifiers and/or libertarians). I think enslavement and freedom can be a bit overly dramatic words when talking about possessions and such.Report

  2. Avatar Mahesh Paolini-Subramanya says:

    Then again, a large tend of this entire discussion usually devolves to the conflation of “true” preferences with “available” preferences. Sometimes – heck, quite often – one has to make a choice from one’s available options. *That*, I believe, is the key thrust of Thaler’s point, viz., given a set of options, which should be the default?Report

  3. Avatar Sam M says:

    “As to conflating political with other types of freedom, see the previous issue of Cato Unbound”

    Or even see the recent discussion about healthcare reform. When someone points out that someone from the government is going to be deciding which treatments will get paid for, supporters of the legislation say, “So? Someone is deciding which treatments get paid for now.”Report

  4. Avatar Sam M says:

    My favorite moment in Thaler’s response is this:

    “First, most of the anti-smoking laws are based on externalities, not paternalism. People do not want to fly, eat, or work in smoke-filled environments.”

    This is wrong on several fronts. First, one of the stated goals of smoking bans is to denormalize smoking in order to make people quit. Or “nudge” them to do so. More important, who is he talking about when he says “people don’t want to…”?

    I am guessing he means me. As a non-smoker, I prefer smoke-free venues, mostly. (I think bars are better when they are a little seedy.) But let’s not forget that about 1/5 of adult Americans smoke. It’s easy to forget when you run in certain circles. But 20 percent is a lot. So to say “people” don’t want smoking to be allowed on planes and in restaurants seems pretty instructive as to the level of paternalism present in libertarian paternalism.

    BTW, the last statistics I saw indicated that about 40 percent of bar and restaurant workers smoked, so even if you are sticking with the “we need bans in ALL BARS to save bartenders from smoke,” that seems a little misplaced.Report

  5. Avatar James Hanley says:

    In Sunstein and Thaler’s rubric, the state-imposed tax is more “libertarian” than the self-imposed cost of living far from civilization.

    It is bizarre, and I think it’s more common than greginak believes. I heard as much from my philosopher-colleague recently when he was arguing in favor of the health care bill. He saw it as being just like requiring people to buy car insurance, because–in his words–there really isn’t a choice about having a car. He was unpersuaded by my argument that where you choose to live is in fact a choice, so needing a car is not an externally imposed cost, but a self-imposed one. He shrugged and said, but a cost is a cost, so there’s really no difference.Report