New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 11: Avoiding Paternalist Slopes

by Glen Whitman

This will be the final installment in my series of excerpts from Mario’s and my article on the slippery-slope potential of new paternalism. The comments on the posts have been minimal, so I’m uncertain how helpful this series has been. Since I’m considering doing the same with a closely related article Mario and I have just published, please let us know what you think.

In the final section of the paper, we offer a few suggestions about how to resist the slippery-slope tendencies of new paternalism (p. 737-739):

How, then, might we protect ourselves against paternalist slopes? We have three recommendations, addressed both to the new paternalists themselves and to those who might be persuaded by them. These recommendations are intended to lower the probability of adopting new paternalist policies to begin with, but also to help resist more intrusive policies after initial policies have been adopted.

1. Have Reasonable Expectations of Decisionmakers

One lesson of behavioral economics is that we cannot reasonably expect decisionmakers to carefully consider the full ramifications of their choices in light of the best available evidence. Instead, they economize on information by using choice heuristics, and they sometimes myopically focus on present and concrete problems while ignoring more distant and abstract ones. This is no less true of public decisionmakers (including voters, politicians, judges, bureaucrats, experts, and rent-seekers) than it is of private citizens. Indeed, the problem is likely worse for public decisionmakers, because they lack the incentives to discover and control their own cognitive limitations. Private decisionmakers at least face the costs and benefits of their own mistakes, and thus have an incentive to correct them.

It is therefore insufficient to ask policymakers to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of each new paternalist proposal. The “careful, cautious, and disciplined approach” advocated by Camerer and coauthors is rather unlikely to guide real-world policy. We should not expect policymakers to weigh all the economic, scientific, and psychological evidence objectively, to stand on nuanced distinctions, and to adopt policies that carefully target just those people who need help most. We should expect policies to be blunt instruments. Continue reading