New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 1

November 7, 2009

by Glen Whitman

As Mario has already announced, we’ve just published a new article, “Little Brother Is Watching You: New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes,” in Arizona Law Review. You can find the full text here.

The article is quite long. As a result, I expect few people will read the whole thing. I’ve therefore decided to excerpt the article in a series of blog posts. I won’t be covering all of our arguments in the paper, but I’ll be pulling out some passages that I particularly like — and that might otherwise be missed.

Since Mario has already posted the abstract on his blog, I’ll start by posting parts of the longer summary in the introduction. Here are the opening paragraphs, which explain the idea of the “new paternalism” (pp. 687-688).

Paternalist arguments advocate forcing or manipulating individuals to change their behavior for their own good, as distinct from the good of others. Paternalism has been with us for millennia. Recently, however, a seemingly new form has arisen that we call “the new paternalism.” Unlike the old paternalism, which sought to make individuals behave consistently with the (often moralistic or religious) preferences of policymakers, the new paternalism seeks to help individuals maximize their own welfare as they see it themselves. …

The new paternalism is supported by a growing body of research in behavioral economics showing that individuals are not fully “rational,” as economists understand that term, but instead are subject to a variety of cognitive errors and biases. The list of such deviations from strict rationality includes—but is not limited to—status quo bias, optimism bias, susceptibility to framing effects, and lack of willpower or self-control. Thus individuals are viewed as “pawns in a game whose forces [they] largely fail to comprehend.” To the extent that these cognitive problems cause individuals to make systematic and predictable choices that are inconsistent with their own well-considered preferences, there is potential for paternalistic interventions that will help them do better. In fact, these interventions have been described as “free lunches . . . that would help people achieve more of what they truly want.”

And then our central claim in the article (pp. 687-688):

New paternalists distinguish their views from hard paternalism by emphasizing the moderate character of their proposals. Christine Jolls and Cass Sunstein frequently refer to their proposals for debiasing behavior through law as a “middle ground” between laissez-faire and more heavy-handed paternalism, one that is a “less intrusive, more direct, and more democratic response to the problem of bounded rationality.” Colin Camerer, et al., present their model of “asymmetric paternalism” as “a careful, cautious, and disciplined approach” to evaluating paternalistic policies. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler characterize their “libertarian paternalist” approach as a “relatively weak and nonintrusive type of paternalism” that in its “most cautious forms . . . imposes trivial costs on those who seek to depart from the planner’s preferred option.” In short, the new paternalists claim we can attain significant improvements in individual welfare with relatively small interventions that do not substantially restrict liberty or autonomy.

Our thesis is that the new paternalism’s claim to moderation is not sustainable. A recent body of literature, to which we have contributed, has rehabilitated slippery-slope reasoning by examining the specific processes by which slippery slopes occur, as well as the circumstances under which slippage is most likely. The insights of the slippery-slope literature suggest that new paternalist policies are particularly subject to expansion. We argue that this is true even if policymakers are rational. But perhaps more importantly, we argue that the slippery-slope threat 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. Consequently, accepting new paternalist policies creates a risk of accepting, in the long run, greater restrictions on individual autonomy than have heretofore been acknowledged. Inasmuch as new paternalists claim to be interested in preserving autonomy, this surely must be taken into account as an unrecognized or unacknowledged cost to be balanced against any possible gains from their policies.

I’ve omitted citations, but they can be found in the full article. Next up: how the new paternalism blurs important distinctions.  (Cross-posted at Agoraphilia.)

4 Responses to “New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 1”


  1. Thank you for this first post. As I read your description of the new paternalism, I am struck how much it sounds like Progressive Thought updated.

  2. Jack Says:

    Nothing’s new under the sun; Sunstein is a patient who needs treated for his affliction of “emperor-itis”. I’ll keep my friendships and autonomy; he can stuff his aggorant paternalism. We all had fathers whom Sunstein’s infinite ego are monumental insult to. His concept of stealing organs from the still living confirms my opinion he needs put on serious to protect society.

  3. simone Says:

    Sunstein seeks to be the all knowing for the rest of us. Would he accept Rush to play the role? How about the Pope? No.


  4. […] Link 1: Whitman legt de essentie uit van wat ‘the new paternalism’ is.Link 2: How Paternalism Creates GradientLink 3: Hyperbolic DiscountingLink 4: Context DependanceLink 5: Deferrence to authorityLink 6: Rent Seekers […]


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