New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 5: Deference to Authority

November 22, 2009

by Glen Whitman

Another problem with the new paternalism is that it necessarily involves greater deference to the authority of experts. Here is the basic logic (p. 710):

Substantial deference to authority is inherent in the application of new paternalist ideas to public policy. This is because the complexities, vagueness, and indeterminism of their analysis (previously discussed) raise the costs of decision-making on the part of voters, politicians, and bureaucrats. The locus of effective decision-making will then quite reasonably shift to experts (“authorities”) or to simplifiers of technical ideas who may have agendas of their own. As Eugene Volokh puts it, “The more complicated a question seems, the more likely it is that voters will assume that they can’t figure it out themselves and should therefore defer to the expert judgment of authoritative institutions . . . .” There will thus be a tendency for policy to slide away from the values of the targeted agents themselves toward those of outsiders regarded as authorities. This happens in at least two ways. First, experts simplify their own theories to make them applicable in a policy context. Second, people seeking to advance their own interests will further simplify the theory and distort the facts to suit their purposes.

Of course, some people think deference to experts is only right and proper. But there are specific reasons to resist that conclusion when it comes to paternalist policymaking (p. 711):

Although it may seem as if the shift of effective decision-making to experts is the right thing to do in difficult cases, this is not always true. It is especially unlikely to be true in the case of new paternalist policies. This is because, as we have argued earlier, the underlying standards and information needed to apply those standards and implement policy are fundamentally vague and indeterminate. The experts themselves have, at best, only a tenuous grip on the values of the targeted agents, which limits the direct applicability of their paternalistic theories to policy. Thus, there will be a tendency for the experts to reify their own values, and to simplify their own theories, in order to make more definite policy recommendations.

How have the new paternalists simplified their own theories? Here is one example (p. 712):

The new paternalists claim to have found policy interventions that will make targeted agents better off according to the target agents’ own preferences. What they have in fact found is evidence of internal conflict in the target agents’ preferences, and then they have resolved the conflict in favor of the experts’ preferences. The error in reasoning is subtle enough that the experts themselves have simplified the argument substantially—either because they do not fully understand the argument themselves, or because they do understand the argument but have simplified it for mass consumption.

For examples of how they have done this, see the posts on hyperbolic discounting and context dependence. Continuing:

What creates the slippery-slope potential here is the veneer of scientific objectivity. It is the simplified argument, not the original and more sophisticated one, that becomes reified in policy. Yet, the simplified form of the argument can justify far more than the initial intervention, especially if the experts are appointed to agencies and commissions tasked with implementing it. If simple observations—that people weigh more than they used to, that they don’t save as much as we think they should—are taken as ipso facto evidence of suboptimal choices, then further intervention will surely follow.

The paper offers evidence, from the obesity debate, to show that the new paternalists do in fact take simple facts as evidence of suboptimal choices – even though their own theory indicates that more evidence is required.

(As usual, full citations are available in the full paper. Cross-posted at Agoraphilia.)

2 Responses to “New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 5: Deference to Authority”

  1. simone Says:

    The new paternalism should welcome the Catholic Church. The Church offers over 2000 years of successful guidance. The priests are well trained to provide direction (and offer confessions for poor choices). I hope Thaler will embrace the move soon.


  2. We have plenty of experience of rule by experts. Monetary policy is one example. In Meltzer’s recent paper, he notes that the Fed has never agreed on a frameowork for monetary policy. It has been entirely rule by experts.

    We are living the consequences: a continuing financial crisis, curtailed lending, weak economic and double-digit unemployment.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: