Nanny State

One Cheer for "State Soft Paternalism"


Over in The New York Times Magazine (via Arts & Letters Daily), Jim Holt argues for an increasing regime of "state soft paternalism":

People have fashioned a wide range of techniques for keeping their inner wantons under control — like buying a pint of ice cream instead of the more economical quart because they know they would end up consuming the latter in one sitting. So why can't soft paternalism be left to the private sector, as some libertarians prefer? The problem is that private self-binding schemes are easily subverted when someone can make a buck off your weakness of will. One Michigan man who signed up for a casino's private self-blacklisting program found the owners all too accommodating when he had a change of heart. "Within a half an hour, I was back in," he said.

Editorializing against soft paternalism earlier this year, The Economist warned that "life would be duller if every reckless spirit could outsource self-discipline to the state." There are certainly more exalted ways to achieve mastery over unwelcome impulses. Thinkers of an existentialist kidney, like Jean-Paul Sartre, used to insist that each of us is free to redefine his character through an act of radical choice. For the religiously inclined, an access of divine grace might be what is needed to stiffen the will.

But what if you are one of those people who rely on more mundane stratagems, like self-binding? The general problem you face (as put by the political theorist Jon Elster) is this: For a given uphill goal and a given strength of will, does there exist a path, however circuitous, that will get you to the top of the hill? By adding a new path here and there, state soft paternalism makes it more likely that the answer will be yes.

Whole thing here.

Some immediate reactions: First off, if someone can make a buck off you by subverting your self-control (and let's face it, in the coming anti-pleasure gulag, Ben & Jerry are likely to play the role of Emmanuel Goldstein), then others should be able to make a buck-and-a-half off you for re-controlling you. Unless, of course, you don't really want to be controlled or "self-bound." In the case of the casino junkie, due to lack of details, it's impossible to know if the guy in question really was damaging himself or his dependents in any serious way. Was he, unlike Bill Bennett, betting the rent money? Or was he spending, say, $100 a week on gambling when he wanted to only spend, say, $25?

Holt's analysis is also totally lacking in any sort of public choice understanding of state action and the often irrational and hysterical underpinnings of same. Not to mention the ultimate consequences of official repression. Were the paternalists running, say, 19th-century Indian reservations just looking out for their charges by baning fire water? Or were they acting from something other than pure altruistic motives? Similarly, alcohol prohibition was sold as a way to help everyone in the U.S. become a better person. Whatever else it did, it helped create a monstrous underground that traded less in temperance and more in violence, adulterated products, and worse.

Which leads to a final question: What sort of evidence might one marshall that state soft paternalism is effective in reducing the targeted behavior. Seatbelt laws might be one instance where they have worked. I don't have the stats on hand, but I'm sure that many, many more people wear seatbelts nowadays–as a result both of informational campaigns and changes in law. It's not immediately clear what the downside of that is, either. However, when you move into other areas–drinking, drugging, etc–it's not exactly clear that prohibitionist policies have similar effects. Or, perhaps more significantly, they concentrate and worsen precisely the sort of destructive behavior that underwrites the ban in the first place.

My bit in Sunday's Chicago Tribune on the latest in state soft paternalism–NYC's ban on trans fat and Ohio's statewide smoking ban–is here.

Contributing Editor Julian Sanchez wrote about the rise of parentalism here.