Light Bondage

|

The cover story from this weekend's Economist is on "the new paternalism," which turns out to be "soft paternalism," or what Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have called "libertarian paternalism." In principle—especially insofar as it's a substitute for the old fashioned sort of paternalism—I actually don't have much trouble with this particular breed of the beast: The idea is to find ways that government can help people make better or more prudent decisions without actually restricting anyone's freedom of choice.

So for instance, if you think people are imprudently failing to save money for retirement, instead of a national program of retirement insurance, you might just automatically sign everyone up for a savings program that takes a few percentage points of wages by default, allowing everyone to easily opt-out. Studies apparently show that people are much more likely to stay in the program if it's opt-in by default than they are to take the extra step to opt into such a program. The article also mentions Missouri's Voluntary Exclusion Program, which lets problem gamblers put themselves on a list of people who'll be subject to penalties if they're caught gambling. Casinos are supposed to check the list before handing out large jackpots, since putting yourself on the list also means voluntarily disclaiming any right to your winnings. In a lot of ways, it sounds like philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah's idea of a "self-management card" that might limit how much fatty food or intoxicants you allow yourself to consume in a given week, which I wrote about in a piece on the different phenomenon of "parentalism." Speaking of which… both that piece and the Economist article cite my old friend Glen Whitman, whose Cato Institute paper on various kinds of cognitive bias over time throws a bit of a wrench into some of the tempting logic behind such programs. Here's how I summed up the objection in that other piece:

Imagine an aging man in ill-health lamenting his sybaritic youth. We are tempted to say that his younger self, seeing the pleasures immediately available to him and giving short shrift to their long term consequences, exhibited a foolish bias toward the present. But surely it's also possible that his older self, faced with the proximate pains and inconveniences of poor health, discounts the pleasures past he'd have forsaken had he been more health-conscious. If we're prone to the first form of cognitive bias, why not the second?

So, consider that Voluntary Exclusion Program. Once you're on the list, there's no getting off, ever—apparently on the grounds that "those who treat problem gamblers are nearly unanimous in their belief that it is a lifetime condition and that a person is never cured but continuously recovering." Without getting into the plausibility of that claim—though it does seem implausible that the world should be cleanly divided into those who manage to gamble or drink in moderation their whole lives and those who, having had a problem once, are never again capable of moderation—it seems to assume that only people who're actually in that latter group will end up on the list, that nobody will rashly or impulsively put himself on the list. It may not sound like a huge risk—you've got to show up in person and fill out a form in the presence of an official who's checking that you seem sober and of sound mind—but it might be a reason to scale it down a bit, maybe let people renew their inclusion on the list in five-year increments. The more serious problem would come when states decide which direction they ought to "nudge" us when they seek to frame our choices in ways that encourage more prudent decisions. The temptation, as above, is to always presume the "long term" self is the one whose will we ought to be promoting—but as Glen notes, the miser and the workaholic prove that you can err too much in that direction, forgetting to smell the roses and all that.

The real problem, of course, is that there is no objective "right answer" as to whose preferences we ought to promote, no vantage point outside the multiplicity of perspectives contesting in our own heads, from which to determine which should take precedence. Critics of utilitarianism like to talk about the problem of aggregating utilities between persons; I'm not even sure there's much hope of aggregating them within persons.

NEXT: Papa Was A Forensic Vaginal Inspector

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I actually just read that article yesterday and had mixed feelings about the whole thing. At first I was thinking, “Well, that’s not so bad. It’s better than cigarette bans, etc.” But then I started thinking, “Hey wait, who’s the government to tell me that long-term decisions are better than short-term ones?”

    Guess I fell back into my conservative tendencies for a second before being yanked back to my usual libertarian frame of mind.

    Just get the bastards off my back and let me decide how I want to live my life.

  2. Oh, and the reference to “libertarian paternalism” is an oxymoron on the the scale of “military intelligence.”

  3. I saw that article earlier this morning.

    The sentence that inadvertently made the same point that Julian made in his last paragraph above, simply proclaimed, “[i]ts champions will say that soft paternalism should only be used for ends that are unarguably good: on the side of sobriety, prudence and restraint.

    Problem is, I can make arguments in which all of those things are not good.

    So are the standards of this soft paternalism set by pragmatism? Traditional morals? The Magic 8-ball?

  4. So are the standards of this soft paternalism set by pragmatism? Traditional morals? The Magic 8-ball?

    Concentrate and ask again. 🙂

  5. Imagine an aging man in ill-health lamenting his sybaritic youth. We are tempted to say that his younger self, seeing the pleasures immediately available to him and giving short shrift to their long term consequences, exhibited a foolish bias toward the present.

    Reading this I immediately thought of the evil Senator in Time Cop played by Ron Silver. His future self (30 pounds heavier) complains to his present day self to keep off the candy bars.

    In New Jersey there is also a casino exclusion program and you can sign up for 1-year, 5-year and lifetime bans.

  6. While I tend to discourage any non-essential government program as a misuse of public funds, I have a hard time arguing against providing the means for self imposed restrictions. It does make it much easier to decide once every couple of years to stay banned from casinos than to face that decision every weekend. The important thing is to let people decide for themselves what is in their best interest. It might be easier to quit smoking if your drivers liscense displayed a voluntary restriction on buying tobacco. Unfortunatly, voluntary restrictions quickly facilitate compelled restrictions. A once voluntary restriction on purchasing alcohol could easily be a part of sentencing in alcohol related offenses.

  7. John:

    Precisely right. First it was “Surgeon General’s Warnings” on cigarettes, now it’s an outright ban in many places.

    I feel strongly that any sort of “soft paternalism” simply deginerates in “hard paternalism” over time.

  8. I like the topic a lot. Should one spend a resource today to get some pleasure? Or should one save the resource for the future?

    To me it’s the same question posed by the debate over welfare. Should we act now to reduce someone’s pain? Or should we not act, and in doing so allow better solutions to come to light?

  9. So, consider that Voluntary Exclusion Program. Once you’re on the list, there’s no getting off, ever?

    That is one thing i would say they should certainly change. The issue is how do you allow people to opt out without defeating the purpose of the list.

    My suggestion would be have a significant time interval, say 30 days, between filing to be let off the list and actually being taken off it. Any time during that interval you can cancel your application to be removed. If you cancel and then decide later that you really do want to be removed, you have to start from the beginning of the interval.

    This would allow people who think they made a bad decision putting themselves on the list to get off, but it would not defeat the purpose of the program for people who have momentary lapses of will power.

    It may not be perfect but it seems like the least bad form of paternalism

  10. This reminds me of the Guns and Dope Position Paper #23:

    Little Tony was sitting on a park bench munching
    on one candy bar after another.
    After the 6th candy bar, a man on the bench across from him said,
    “Son, you know eating all that candy isn’t good for you.
    It will give you acne, rot your teeth, and make you fat.”

    Little Tony replied, “My grandfather lived to be 107 years old.”

    The man asked, “Did your grandfather eat 6 candy bars at a time?”

    Little Tony answered, “No, he minded his own fucking business.”

  11. That “light bondage” headline is such a tease.

  12. The man asked, “Did your grandfather eat 6 candy bars at a time?”

    Little Tony answered, “No, he minded his own fucking business.”

    That one always gives me the nastiest little grin…

  13. Here’s a nifty study that gets at this issue from a different slant.

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa003&articleID=000AADF2-843E-1435-843E83414B7F0000

    Apparently people self selected to be in the groups that punish others for unwise decisions that impacted the group’s longterm success. It would be interesting to see how this played out if instead of a punishment group, there was an opt-in/opt-out group option.

  14. I think these are good ideas. As long as no coercion is involved, all is good.

  15. Light bondage? Does that mean that they use soft cloth instead of rope???

    Enquiring minds want to know.

  16. That “light bondage” headline is such a tease.

    Remember the thread where we publicly auctioned off Cathy Young in Gorean tavern? That rocked. And it was the funnest abortion thread ever.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.