Little Brother Is Watching You: New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes

October 24, 2009

by Mario Rizzo  

Glen Whitman and I have published another article about the new paternalism – it appears in the Arizona Law Review, volume 51, no. 3 (2009). You can get it here

This article applies a slippery-slope or policy-dynamic analysis to the “moderate” policies proposed by some new paternalists. (The general slippery-slope analysis was first laid out in a UCLA Law Review article Glen and I published in 2003.)  

The following is a summary of the article:  

“The “new paternalism” claims that careful policy interventions can help people make better decisions in terms of their own welfare, with only mild or nonexistent infringement of personal autonomy and choice.  This claim to moderation is not sustainable.  Applying the insights of the modern literature on slippery slopes to new paternalist policies suggests that such policies are particularly vulnerable to expansion.  This is true even if policymakers are fully rational.  More importantly, the slippery-slope potential is especially great if policymakers are not fully rational, but instead share the behavioral and cognitive biases attributed to the people their policies are supposed to help.  Accepting the new paternalist approach creates a risk of accepting, in the long run, greater restrictions on individual autonomy than have been heretofore acknowledged.”  

I think systematic and empirically plausible slippery-slope analysis deserves an important place in the study and evaluation of public policy. Until recently, slippery-slope analysis has been declared “unscientific” by those who believe that science necessarily involves judging each policy solely in terms of its own empirical consequences.

But suppose a policy, once adopted, makes other policies more likely. Are these not part of the consequences of the initial policy?  Consider that all the usually-considered consequences (inflation, unemployment, lower wages, etc.) of a policy flow with only a certain probability, none are certain. We try with the best evidence available to determine what they are likely to be. In the same way, it is important to use good theory and evidence to consider the political and economic dynamic set in motion when a policy is adopted. This dynamic is one – sometimes the most important – of its consequences.  

We hope that the study of public policy will take on a new orientation based not only on an evaluation of the traditionally-considered consequences but also on an evaluation of its effects on the process of generating further policies. It is profoundly unscientific to assert that the effects of public policy stop where a particular academic discipline loses interest.

Addendum: My previous post on our other critique of new paternalism is here.

5 Responses to “Little Brother Is Watching You: New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes”


  1. [...] » One of my favorite professors, economist Mario Rizzo, has another fine post defending slippery slope logic. Slippery slopes are dismissed by “serious” academics as unscientific -see Greg [...]


  2. Some comments: We all know that private individuals have systematic behavioral and cognitive biases, but before you suggest that government policymakers also share these, aren’t you obligated to explain why you’d ever think this?

    (Sorry, I’ve never gotten over Loasby insisting Austrians justify their assumption that people don’t have perfect information.)

    More seriously, isn’t Mises’ intervention dynamic sufficient to establish the slippery slope? Necessary consequences of a particular intervention might systematically create incentives for another intervention. This is also Hayek’s point in “Economics & Knowledge” when he contrasts things people will necessarily learn with those that they might not necessarily learn. For a variety of reasons, interventionist policies tend not to live up to expectations, generating incentives to fix the problem with ever more intervention.

  3. Charles N. Steele Says:

    Oops. I was making an attempt at ironic humor… oh well.

    Just so it’s clear, I think your arguments here are on target and quite important.


  4. [...] 1 Glen Whitman inleder en serie blogginlägg om paternalism, baserat på en artikel som han och Mario Rizzo har [...]


  5. [...] interventions fail and the problem worsens, the standard response is to add more regulation. Next step down the slippery slope, maybe a new rule on what children are allowed to eat at home. Banish all foods other than [...]


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