New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 7: The Inevitable Misinterpretation of New Paternalist Arguments

January 1, 2010

by Glen Whitman

Happy new year! After a holiday-induced hiatus, I’m now resuming the series of excerpts from Mario Rizzo’s and my recently published article, “Little Brother Is Watching You: New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes.”

A number of our claims in the paper rely on the new paternalists’ arguments (which are largely based in behavioral economics) being misconstrued or misrepresented by other parties such as politicians, bureaucrats, and rent-seekers. We claim such people will often employ simplified, unsophisticated versions of the new paternalists’ arguments when crafting policy. Is this a fair line of criticism? We believe it is (p. 723):

Experts, and more broadly intellectuals like the readers of scientific and law journals, naturally respond to sophisticated argumentation. The complex interaction of multiple justifications is their favored milieu, the drawing of distinctions their stock in trade. Some of the claims of this Part might, therefore, seem anti-intellectual or unfair, because we are discussing the misinterpretation of the new paternalists’ arguments, rather than the new paternalists’ actual arguments. Why can’t the experts simply reject the simplification, distortion, and expansion of their justifications for policy?

The answer is twofold. First, intellectuals cannot always control the development of their own ideas. Many regular people, whose job is not the careful parsing of sophisticated arguments, nevertheless affect the policy process. These regular people include voters, of course, but in varying degrees other public decisionmakers, such as politicians, bureaucrats, and some judges. The point is not that such people are stupid, but that they are rationally ignorant. They act based on simplified versions of arguments because they do not have the time, energy, or motivation to explore the sophisticated versions. In short, simple is easy; complex is hard.

Second, decision-making takes place in a social context. The fact that some people will recognize certain distinctions as relevant does not mean that others will. The decisionmakers who create a policy are not necessarily the people who enforce it, or who interpret it, or who consider extensions of it. We therefore need to keep in mind Bernard Williams’s distinction between “reasonable distinctions” and “effective distinctions.” The former are distinctions for which a reasoned argument can be made, whereas the latter are distinctions that can be defended “as a matter of social or psychological fact.” The social and psychological facts, in a world of rational ignorance, often point toward simplification and even distortion of both theory and fact.

The core of the new paternalists’ position is, put simply, that people make mistakes. If they are right (and surely they are), then they cannot deny or ignore the mistakes that will inevitably be made in the process of translating their policy prescriptions into political reality.

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

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