Save Me From Myself Redux

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So, waay back in July, I mentioned in a piece on resurgent paternalism that Cal State economist (and erstwhile roomie) Glen Whitman had a fascinating Cato Policy Analysis in the works on the faddish "internalities" argument for paternalism (which is essentially "people are shortsighted and do stupid things sometimes" gussied up with sigmas). Well, the paper is now out and well worth a look. It makes a nice complement to "Paternalism and Psychology" by Harvard's Edward Glaeser.

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  1. Humans are never so capable of mischief as when we are acting for someone else’s own good.

  2. As long as I’m being an aphorist:

    The only perfect way to avoid being wrong is never to make any decisions. The author of this paper understands this.

  3. Karen, dont forget Mencken:

    The human impulse to save the world is usually a facade for the impulse to rule it.

  4. Forget it, Matt. I’ve given up on you people. Eighty years after the fiasco in Tennessee, the booboisie are still inisisting that their superstitions be taught in schools. The masses still yearn to abase themselves before one scoundrel or another.
    Fuck it. I’m going to go find Nock and get blasted.

  5. So if I have have the paternalistic internalities theory correct, Present David might engage in behavior that Future David wishes he hadn’t. That will make Future David (who at that point will be Present David) resent Present David(by then, Past David and consequence free) and wish he’d behaved more wisely. So in order to prevent the possible regret that Future David might feel, Present David should be taxed or otherwise prohibited by Government from engaging in certain behaviors.

    Conveniently, the behavior that Future David might regret neatly dovetails with behavior that the paternists don’t think Present David should be allowed to engage in.

    I think I’ve given myself a headache.

  6. David, you are a hotbrained dynamitard.

  7. I liked Glaeser’s Abstract much more than I liked Whitman’s article (which I skimmed).

    However, another way to look at the internalities argument is to assume that it’s valid and look at the implications. Once you buy into the internalities argument, then there’s an argument for government interference in every decision whether time is involved or not. That’s because a sub-optimal choice whose sub-optimality occurs at the instant of the completed transaction is a degenerate case of a sub-optimal choice whose sub-optimality only occurs at time T into the future. In this case, T is 0.

    Once it’s clear that internalities argument is just a broad way of saying that it’s possible to get better results when you have an oracle pushing you in the right direction, you have reduced the question to how well does the government do in that job? History shows it’s done a miserable job. Why? Thomas Sowell’s _Knowledge and Decisions_ does a good job of explaining not just why it’s done poorly in the past, but why it’s not suited to do a good job in the future, either.

  8. >Fuck it. I’m going to go find Nock and get blasted.

    H.L., Can I join you?

  9. David, think of it this way: If Present David does not engage in said destructive and embarrassing behaviors, then Future David is more likely not to know of the “un-wisdom” of doing such things–which is sort of thing that leads to the sad spectacle of 55-year old men driving Corvettes, snorting coke and hanging out at dance clubs trying to date 20-year olds.

    We learn through experience. Bad experience, mostly. Paternalism leads to infantilism and imbecilism. Whole lot of isms, there.

  10. Beyond all of the psychobabble. Our society’s current paternalistic and risk-averse streak seems directly attributable to our amazing prosperity. Fact is, most of don’t have to really struggle or risk anything to get by, and increasing numbers of us live at levels of prosperity (both in terms of money and ease/comfort) undreamed of by our ancestors. And such people are naturally less willing to risk what they have, being that they didn’t have to risk much to get it in the first place. And no, I’m not holding myself out as some sort of Howard Roark exception to the rule. I’m Exhibit A of how far you can get in today’s society just sort of stumbling along…

  11. Akira- Sure, if you bring cigars. Rose Lane and Isabell Patterson will be there, and sometimes can be convinced to do a salacious dance routine. As the evening wears on, we usually go out and beat up Walter Lippman.

  12. I’ll cop to being Exhibit B.

    David: So if I have the paternalistic internalities theory correct, Present David might engage in behavior that Future David wishes he hadn’t. … So in order to prevent the possible regret that Future David might feel, Present David should be taxed or otherwise prohibited by Government from engaging in certain behaviors.

    Since I’ve been Larry for almost 59 years, I am now “Future Larry.” I have a list of things I wish I’d have done differently. I also have a list of things I wish the government had done differently.

    No contest. My own decisions about me were much better than the ones the government made.

    Specifically, internality theory in its current form unjustifiably “takes sides” when it chooses to favor some personal interests over others. Furthermore, it ignores the possibility of within-person bargaining and other private solutions to self-control problems. Finally, it gives insufficient attention to the possibility of government failure.

    This list of problems omits the two biggest errors:

    • The government cannot possibly make individual decisions for the current U.S. population, 298,163,510 people. Therefore its generic solutions cannot possibly take into account the fact that people want and need different things.
    • Once you raise a generation of people who depend upon the government to run their lives, who among them will be capable of running the government and making decisions for everyone’s life?
  13. David, the solution to your problem is that government ought not regulate your behavior but rather give you the means to redress grievances against yourself. To wit: funding the development of a time machine that would enable Future David to come back and sue Present David for damages. Of course this raises fascinating jurisdictional questions: would the case be tried under the laws of the present or of the future? And then there’s the danger of harm to your past self causing harm to your present self…paradoxes and whatnot…hmm…

  14. I haven’t read the article yet, but I am looking forward to it. I know an economist who was trained in Havana and argues for economic planning because “the world has become so complicated that ordinary people can’t make decisions wisely, what is needed is collective decision-making.” This sort of sophistry needs to be vigourously countered.

  15. Mitch-That’s not sophistry; it’s pure stupidity.

  16. What happens when Present Self does something good that later turns out to harm Future Self? Women athletes who train to the point of amenorrhea but who win Olympic medals and get lucrative endorsement contracts have 1.) probably seriously injured their reproductive system, while 2) improved their finances to the point they can pay for IVF or whatever is available. Externalities theory at least balances the costs and benefits of any particular activity, and has the advantage that the costs and benefits occur close in time. How do you balance an Olympic medal against IVF ten years later or arthritis in 30 years?

  17. Karen, another thing to consider is that maybe the athletes are perfectly content to lose their childbearing abilities in exchange for fame and fortune. Mass-safety planners forget that just because you don’t want to take a certain risk doesn’t mean others aren’t willing to take it.

    Hell, I never wanted kids anyway. If I’d had the innate talent to be a rich and famous athlete I’d’ve been more than willing to give up a childbearing ability I have no intention of using.

  18. Not David,

    The paradox will be that any steps that Future David takes against Past David will punish Future David as well.

    I guess my original post wasn’t that clear, I agree with Glen’s conclusions. TI just wanted to poke fun at the arguments of those who’d use “internalities” as an excuse to substitute their judgement for mine. For onething, they never quite seem to address how making twinkies cost $11 each would benefit people who already consume in moderation, or don’t regret the consequence of eating 10 per day.

  19. When I do have access to that time machine, I’ll make Past David take a keyboarding course.

  20. This could be a really fun party game: come up with situations in which Past Karen did something blindingly dimwitted that produced a huge benefit to Future Karen, or good things Past Karen did that she’d undo in heartbeat if she had the chance. Can Past Karen sue Future Karen to get some of the benefits of blinding dimwit moment when I needed ’em? Like the bar exam, only a lot more fun and with booze. (Please, replace my name with yours.)

  21. The problem with the argument is that it treats the government as some kind of quasi-human entity rather than an human entity subject to the same flaws in judgement individuals are subject. Of course people make short sighted decisions but so do bureaucrats, dictators and politicians who make up government. The difference of course is that when I make a short sighted decision it generally harms me or a few people around me but when a government makes a short sighed decision if can harm millions.

  22. Karen, true story: I had to go down to Ft. Lauderdale to take the two-day Florida Bar exam. At the hotel between the two days, we were hanging out at the pool with various vacationers. A girl I was talking to asked what we were there for. I said, “The Bar exam”. She said, “Oh, you are all going to be bartenders?”

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