New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 9: Framing in Public Policy

by Glen Whitman

And after another long interruption, I’m finally going to finish my series of excerpts from Mario Rizzo’s and my article, “Little Brother Is Watching You: New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes.” There are three more posts, including this one.

As discussed in an earlier post, the new paternalists use the notion of framing — that is, the idea that people’s choices respond to seemingly irrelevant differences in how the choice situation is presented — to justify a variety of policy interventions. But what happens when we apply the notion of framing to the choices of the policymakers themselves? There is a natural human tendency to frame decisions narrowly “because immediate and concrete effects are more psychologically accessible than remote and abstract ones” (p. 726), and this tendency has worrisome implications for public policy. Specifically, paternalist policy-makers will tend to ignore the indirect and longer-term and implications of their policy choices (p. 726-727):

Narrow framing leads decisionmakers to consider choice-options simply as they arise, framed by present circumstances, the crisis of the moment, and perhaps the activities of rent-seekers. Their actions will often be ad hoc solutions to particular problems, and the narrow framing produces a tendency not to see important interrelationships. In Kahneman’s words again, “[t]he decision of whether or not to accept a gamble is normally considered as a response to a single opportunity, not as an occasion to apply a general policy.” For example, the interaction of biases may be ignored. This means the problem is not simply one of discounting long-term effects, but also of discounting effects that occur through longer and more complex chains of causality.

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