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

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. Continue reading

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 3: Hyperbolic Discounting

by Glen Whitman

New paternalists often rely on the phenomenon of “hyperbolic discounting” to justify their policies. Hyperbolic discounting is difficult to define in a non-mathematical way. It is sometimes summarized as excessive impatience, but that’s an over-simplification. A person with a high-but-consistent rate of time discounting would not be a hyperbolic discounter. What hyperbolic discounting really means is having inconsistent rates of time-discounting. One consequence is that a hyperbolic discounter may exhibit “time inconsistency,” a tendency to make choices and then reverse them. After explaining hyperbolic discounting (in more technical terms that I have here), Mario and I explain how paternalists have made unjustified leaps in their use of the concept (pp. 699-700):

In short, hyperbolic discounting means that people at first make long-term plans for saving or dieting but then, when the time comes to implement these plans, they succumb to the desire for short-term gratification. For the new paternalists, this type of behavior suggests an opening for paternalist intervention or correction. Examples include the previously mentioned proposal to automatically enroll people in savings plans, and to impose a sin tax (on unhealthy foods, cigarettes, and so forth) to provide additional incentive for impatient people to resist their temptations. Continue reading

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 2: How New Paternalism Creates Gradients

by Glen Whitman

A key conclusion of the literature on slippery slopes is that they are especially likely in the presence of gradients — meaning situations in which there is a relatively smooth continuum from one policy to another, and in which it is difficult to draw sharp distinctions. Gradients don’t guarantee slippery slope events, but they increase their probability in the presence of other slope processes.

In “Little Brother,” Mario and I review the literature on gradients and slippery slopes, and then we consider how the new paternalists deliberately frame policy choice in terms of gradients (pp. 693-694):

The new paternalist paradigm, as presented by its leading advocates, relies on discarding sharp distinctions in favor of gradients. Specifically, they reject standard distinctions between choice and coercion and between public and private action. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler minimize the importance of the distinction between paternalism in the private and in the public sectors. In explaining their concept of “libertarian paternalism,” they say that the distinction between libertarian and non-libertarian paternalism “is not simple and rigid.” Moreover, they explicitly state that libertarian and non-libertarian paternalism lie on a continuum: “The libertarian paternalist insists on preserving choice, whereas the non-libertarian paternalist is willing to foreclose choice. But in all cases, a real question is the cost of exercising choice, and here there is a continuum rather than a sharp dichotomy . . . .”

Sunstein and Thaler thus present us with a gradient on which choice is characterized by low costs of escaping the prescribed course of action, while coercion corresponds to higher costs of escape. Who imposes the costs of escape and how these costs are imposed are regarded as unimportant questions. Continue reading

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 1

by Glen Whitman

As Mario has already announced, we’ve just published a new article, “Little Brother Is Watching You: New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes,” in Arizona Law Review. You can find the full text here.

The article is quite long. As a result, I expect few people will read the whole thing. I’ve therefore decided to excerpt the article in a series of blog posts. I won’t be covering all of our arguments in the paper, but I’ll be pulling out some passages that I particularly like — and that might otherwise be missed. Continue reading