New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 2: How New Paternalism Creates Gradients

by Glen Whitman

A key conclusion of the literature on slippery slopes is that they are especially likely in the presence of gradients — meaning situations in which there is a relatively smooth continuum from one policy to another, and in which it is difficult to draw sharp distinctions. Gradients don’t guarantee slippery slope events, but they increase their probability in the presence of other slope processes.

In “Little Brother,” Mario and I review the literature on gradients and slippery slopes, and then we consider how the new paternalists deliberately frame policy choice in terms of gradients (pp. 693-694):

The new paternalist paradigm, as presented by its leading advocates, relies on discarding sharp distinctions in favor of gradients. Specifically, they reject standard distinctions between choice and coercion and between public and private action. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler minimize the importance of the distinction between paternalism in the private and in the public sectors. In explaining their concept of “libertarian paternalism,” they say that the distinction between libertarian and non-libertarian paternalism “is not simple and rigid.” Moreover, they explicitly state that libertarian and non-libertarian paternalism lie on a continuum: “The libertarian paternalist insists on preserving choice, whereas the non-libertarian paternalist is willing to foreclose choice. But in all cases, a real question is the cost of exercising choice, and here there is a continuum rather than a sharp dichotomy . . . .”

Sunstein and Thaler thus present us with a gradient on which choice is characterized by low costs of escaping the prescribed course of action, while coercion corresponds to higher costs of escape. Who imposes the costs of escape and how these costs are imposed are regarded as unimportant questions.

In the pages that follow, we summarize the many and sundry policies that S & T regard as falling on the libertarian paternalist spectrum. Many of these are policies they never mention in their public defenses of libertarian paternalism. But they do appear in their academic work, and reading the list makes it apparent just how un-libertarian libertarian paternalism can be. We conclude (pp. 697-698):

At the far end of the continuum lies an outright ban on certain activities. Sunstein and Thaler embrace this conclusion: “Almost all of the time, even the non-libertarian paternalist will allow choosers, at some cost, to reject the proposed course of action. Those who are required to wear motorcycle helmets can decide to risk the relevant penalty, and to pay it if need be.”

Notice that the same argument would place outright prohibition of alcohol, drugs, or anything else on the same spectrum. You are free to use any drug you want, says the argument, if you are willing to incur the cost of potential imprisonment. At this end of the continuum, we find, lies genuine hard paternalism. In Sunstein and Thaler’s words:

A libertarian paternalist who is especially enthusiastic about free choice would be inclined to make it relatively costless for people to obtain their preferred outcomes. (Call this a libertarian paternalist.) By contrast, a libertarian paternalist who is especially confident of his welfare judgments would be willing to impose real costs on workers and consumers who seek to do what, in the paternalist’s view, would not be in their best interests. (Call this a libertarian paternalist.)

Movement along a paternalist continuum should come as no surprise when the two ends of the continuum depend on which word is italicized, as well as on the subjective confidence of the policymaker in his welfare judgments.

It bears emphasis that the sequence of steps we have outlined—from nudging (changing the order of cafeteria items) to pushing (imposing costs on those who deviate from the state’s preferred terms of contract) to shoving (ruling out some terms entirely) to controlling (banning some activities altogether)—is not our creation. Sunstein and Thaler present the same proposals in approximately the same order, to demonstrate the existence of a continuum.

A bit later (pp. 698-699) we respond to a natural objection: that the new paternalism is not to blame for the existence of a gradient that already exists.

Some may object that the existence of a gradient from soft to hard paternalism is just a fact, and that the new paternalists cannot be faulted for pointing it out. But the gradient in fact results from the conceptual framework that the new paternalists have adopted and urge the rest of us to adopt. The main problem with the framework, in our view, is that it defines freedom of choice (and libertarianism) in terms of costs of exit, without any attention to who imposes the costs and how. An alternative framework, one that is more consistent with the typical usage of words like coercion and choice, would focus on whether rights of person and property are abridged by a given policy. On this approach, a restaurateur’s decision about dessert placement and a government’s decision about whether to allow helmetless motorcycle riding simply would not be on the same continuum. The former is private and non-coercive, the latter public and coercive. This is the sort of framework that the new paternalists encourage us to reject in favor of theirs.

To put it another way, the new paternalists often say that people are subject to “framing effects” that alter their choices. Indeed, they say that such framing effects are evidence of irrationality. Yet they are exploiting a framing effect in their advocacy of new paternalism. They encourage us to adopt a conceptual frame that relies on gradients, rather than a conceptual frame that highlights important distinctions. We will revisit this point later. (As usual, footnotes have been omitted, but are available in the full paper.)

Cross-posted at Agoraphilia.

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