New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 6: Rent Seekers

November 25, 2009

by Glen Whitman

As discussed in the previous post, the “experts” in charge of implementing new paternalist policies will have a tendency to simplify their own theories to make them useful for crafting policy. That alone creates slippery-slope potential. But that potential is magnified by the existence of rent-seekers – that is, interest groups whose agenda is to change policy for their own interests. Such interests can be ideological, monetary, or simply personal. In the paper, we illustrate the power of rent-seekers to distort the facts and confuse the debate with two issues: environmental tobacco-smoke (ETS) and obesity. With respect to ETS, however, we have to run off a potential objection: that ETS is not really a paternalist cause at all, because smoke harms non-smokers (p. 714):

We should note that although policies addressing exposure to secondhand smoke (“environmental tobacco smoke” or ETS) are not strictly paternalistic, inasmuch as secondhand smoke can potentially harm bystanders, paternalist arguments have played an important supporting role. Most importantly, many actual and proposed anti-smoking regulations limit the ability of individuals who may not be bothered by smoke to expose themselves voluntarily to secondhand smoke as customers or employees of restaurants and bars. Furthermore, by creating a hostile environment for smokers, the ETS argument easily slides into the paternalistic. Thus, even some ETS arguments must be regarded as partially paternalistic either in intention or merely in effect.

After considering the ways in which ETS claims have been exaggerated, we draw some more general conclusions (p. 715):

The rent-seekers’ motivation for simplifying and distorting is not hard to see. The exaggeration of risks has the direct effect of creating greater public support for the policies they regard as best. It also has the indirect effect of making the cultural environment less hospitable to opposing groups, such as those who wish to smoke. This puts further pressure on individuals to stop smoking because they will find themselves uncomfortable in more and more public spaces. Thus the paternalist net can widen by increasing the number of those who, for self-interested or moralistic reasons, will support more inclusive bans.

And after presenting the similar case of obesity, where the distortion of facts by special interests is also apparent, we observe that rent-seekers can have a variety of motivations (p. 716-717):

As the secondhand smoke and obesity examples [just presented] suggest, rent-seekers with an interest in distorting and simplifying information come in at least two varieties. The first variety is old-style paternalists who believe they know best and do not necessarily care about the underlying preferences of the targets. Traditional temperance and health advocates fall within this category. They sacrifice the preferences of the targets to their own moralistic goals. The second variety is people who stand to benefit economically from the promotion or cessation of some activity. Examples include mutual fund companies that provide savings instruments, weight-loss clinics and programs, and manufacturers of smoking-cessation drugs. Public officials and agencies with an interest in preserving and expanding their domains also fall within this category, as do some individuals in their role as consumers and workers (e.g., non-smoking bar customers who would prefer to have more establishments cater to their tastes).

The larger point is that new paternalists cannot constrain the use of their own arguments in the publicy-policy debate. Once new paternalists premises are admitted, there is every reason to believe they’ll be used and abused by rent-seekers for purposes the new paternalists themselves would not approve of.

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

2 Responses to “New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 6: Rent Seekers”

  1. gcallah Says:

    Reading about this stressed me out so much that I had to go have a smoke.


  2. […] Another nice installment is out. As the secondhand smoke and obesity examples [just presented] suggest, rent-seekers with an interest in distorting and simplifying information come in at least two varieties. The first variety is old-style paternalists who believe they know best and do not necessarily care about the underlying preferences of the targets. Traditional temperance and health advocates fall within this category. They sacrifice the preferences of the targets to their own moralistic goals. The second variety is people who stand to benefit economically from the promotion or cessation of some activity. Examples include mutual fund companies that provide savings instruments, weight-loss clinics and programs, and manufacturers of smoking-cessation drugs. Public officials and agencies with an interest in preserving and expanding their domains also fall within this category, as do some individuals in their role as consumers and workers (e.g., non-smoking bar customers who would prefer to have more establishments cater to their tastes). […]


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