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

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 10: Rejoinder to Objections

by Glen Whitman

Some new paternalists have recognized the slippery-slope objections to their approach, and they have made some effort to respond. But we find the responses insufficient (p. 735-737):

In their book Nudge, Sunstein and Thaler recognize the slippery-slope objections to their policies, and offer three responses. We reply to their responses here.Sunstein and Thaler’s first response is that the slippery-slope argument “ducks the question of whether our proposals have merit in and of themselves.” They say if the initial interventions are worthwhile, then we should “make progress on those, and do whatever it takes to pour sand on the slope.”

Our claim is not that slippery slopes are the only objection to the new paternalism. Various other objections have also been made (and referenced in the introduction to this Article). The slippery slope is an additional argument against the new paternalism.

The idea that we should “make progress” on the initial interventions, and then do what we can to “pour sand” on the slope, is a variant of the usual (and, we think, hackneyed) response to all slippery-slope arguments: that we can simply “do the right thing now, and resist doing the wrong thing later.” But if the slope argument is correct, there is a causal (albeit probabilistic) connection between initial interventions and later ones. Saying we should move forward on those initial interventions is akin to saying we should do something because it promises present benefits, while ignoring the potential costs in the future. Ironically, it is just this sort of error in private decision-making that most new paternalists think cries out for correction. The slope risk must be counted among the costs of the initial intervention.

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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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