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Framing and the New Paternalism

April 5th, 2010 · 16 Comments

My friend Glen Whitman has an excellent essay over at Cato Unbound that takes aim at what’s been variously called “new” or “soft” or even “libertarian” paternalism. I’ve been relatively open to at least some of the ideas circulating under those banners—at least as libertarians go—but Glen’s arguments certainly provide ample reason for severe skepticism.  Certainly, I share his concern that initiatives that begin as “soft” paternalism, in the form of default rules meant to steer people away from ill-considered decisions, may “harden” if people continue to make what regulators perceive as the “wrong” choices.  In particular, I think there’s an unjustified tendency to  privilege temporally later preferences—so that if someone in ill-health regrets their youthful excesses, we treat this as reflecting the “real” preference. But if we think people overvalue the short term pleasures of fatty food, drink, or tobacco, and undervalue the long-term costs, surely it’s equally possible that those costs will loom large when the bill comes due, and cause people to discount too heavily all the enjoyment they got while running up the tab.

Especially important, I think, is Glen’s argument about framing effects: Soft paternalism may currently seem like a middle-ground between a relatively more laissez-faire approach and “hard” paternalism that forecloses options rather than merely establishing defaults.  Yet, as Glen points out, once “soft paternalist” policies are implemented, the debate may shift to position some more aggressive intervention as the new reasonable middle ground.

Yet it’s this very sort of logic that has made me at least somewhat interested in the potential of libertarian paternalist arguments. My (perhaps vain) hope is that this reframing effect can be exploited in the other direction, to make reform in the direction of greater freedom more appealing, provided libertarian paternalists are primarily deployed in spheres that are already heavily regulated.  So, for instance, it seems that most Americans consider straightforward legalization of gambling or prostitution or drugs too extreme a position—though at least with regard to marijuana, the public opinion trend seems to be moving steadily in a more libertarian direction. But a proposal to combine legalization with some mechanism for permitting “problem users” to limit their own access—supposing the obvious privacy problems presented by such mechanisms could be worked out—might conceivably be presented as a reasonable compromise, recasting the status quo prohibitionist policies as the new “extreme.”  At the very least, I’d be interested to see some polling that examines how people’s responses change when a “soft paternalist” alternative is added alongside prohibition and legalization.

Tags: Economics · General Philosophy · Law · Libertarian Theory · Nannyism


       

 

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph // Apr 5, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Speaking as a liberal, who is trying NOT to concern troll, I don’t understand why soft paternalism has so few libertarian adherents. The vast majority of people aren’t libertarians (nor are they conservatives or liberals for that matter). Their views are a mix of contradictory and half formed views (don’t raise taxes, don’t cut services, and hey the deficit is a big problem) that tend to become crystalized into extreme positions due to some major stressor. This is to put it mildly a less than ideal way to implement public policy (cough 9/11 cough).

    From my point of view, people have problems. In many, many cases, there’s a nascent tendency to have government address those problems. Due to the status quo bias and institutional veto points, its fairly easy to block the government from doing anything. Consequently, libertarians and small government conservatives, preferring the status quo of relatively less government, help block those changes. That is until the problem becomes so severe that there’s enough popular support to overturn the status quo and implement a much more radical and intrusive govenmental solution than the soft paternalism solution.

    Take healthcare reform. This has been a major issue for the Democratic party and liberal groups for over 50 years. There was a wide range of ideas to achieve the goal of universal coverage. Some of them were more libertarian than others. I, for example, find the libertarianesque idea of catastrophic coverage for everyone quite appealing. Yet instead of getting behind policies that might actually address peoples problems, which is I am sick and I can’t afford medical care, the predominant response is a rhetorical shrug of the shoulders. Or my favorie was one cato correspondent arguing that the sick should just rely on charity care.

  • 2 mike farmer // Apr 6, 2010 at 6:24 am

    “Or my favorie was one cato correspondent arguing that the sick should just rely on charity care.”

    Far from being a rhetorical shrug of the shoulders, private sector charity and innovation are sorely needed if we’re ever going to create real solutions to the problem of healthcare for the poor.

    Associating Sunstein-like paternalism with libertarianism is a painful cognitive dissonance this early in the morning.

  • 3 DivisionByZero // Apr 6, 2010 at 7:26 am

    I’m not familiar with “soft paternalism”. I’ll have to look into it some more. I’d be broadly sympathetic to something more structured than laissez-faire because of the historical advantage conferred upon traditional powers under laissez-faire. Of course, as I suppose this article points out, there is always the issue of the “slippery slope” but maybe as Julian suggests the angle of that slope can be flipped. I doubt it given the lack nuance in current political discourse but it’s an interesting thought.

  • 4 Justin // Apr 6, 2010 at 11:58 am

    It’s remarkable how explicitly Whitman and you rely on a slippery slope argument, when it’s commonly seen as a fallacy. I don’t say that to shame you, but in a (vain?) hope that you’ll write something about when the slippery slope is actually a fallacy. It seems a bit like a characteristic JS post.

    I’ve never thought of anything smarter to say about the fallacy than “it’s not exactly a fallacy when the slippery slope will actually happen”, which is not very insightful.

  • 5 Jonathon Duerig // Apr 6, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    These kinds of framing strategies and arguments are ultimately self-defeating. They tend to lead to a bad status quo rather than a fruitful compromise.

    Every side of every debate is afraid that by ceding one inch to the other, the terms of the debate will change and they will ‘lose’. And they are also hopeful of the reverse which will lead to an ultimate ‘victory’.

    But that is not how things work. Interests can become entrenched, but not ideas. If a soft-paternalism measure is enacted and then becomes permanent or leads to a harder measure, then it is because either the idea works and is popular or the interests pushing it are powerful.

    Neither of these has to do with issues of framing. If you are fearful of any government step, it is the change in power and not the idea that should frighten.

  • 6 aimai // Apr 6, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Well, one of the logical reasons to privilege the latter end of the “bill paying” moment is that so few people are willing to pay the piper, having called the tune. People’s “true” preferences can’t be grasped when the preference expressed now (fast living, drugs, fatty food) isn’t coupled with the actual cost. Now, we can’t know the actual cost of any of our life choices in reality, in real time, because we don’t know how long we have to live. People aren’t actually choosing to “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse” and they aren’t choosing to live well, live long, and leave a wrinkled corpse. Because they aren’t choosing their fate at all. People who eat fatty food and get hit by a car, however, aren’t “getting away with it” and “really enjoying themselves” in some way that someone else who eats fatty food and lives to get a stroke is failing to “get.” They are just people doing what makes sense at X point in their lives and suffering the random consequences of being in the universe.

    We are talking about choices people make because the costs of bad choices are actually born by other people, over the long haul. No cheeseburger eater/alcoholic refuses medicare treatment at the latter end of life. So to the extent that lots of people are paying for lots of other people’s bad choices public officials and the taxpayer have some interest in crafting situations carefully to push people, by and large, in a good direction healthwise while trying to balance an interest in personal choice and freedom at the same time. Its an art and a science.

    aimai

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Apr 6, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Justin-
    I haven’t written about it because I doubt I could do a better job than Eugene Volokh:
    http://www.law.ucla.edu/volokh/slipperymag.pdf
    http://www.law.ucla.edu/volokh/slipperyshorter.pdf

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Apr 6, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Though that reminds me I had meant to do a more general post on various well-know logical fallacies, and why they’re often not.

  • 9 Van Carter // Apr 8, 2010 at 12:39 am

    Unfortunately, I don’t see any effective Libertarian (laissez-faire) solutions for the second-hand effects of these and similar issues.

    Parents who elect to eat very poorly are not only creating a circumstance that leads to their own ill-health but also inculcating these habits in their children. Further, numerous studies indicate that weight gain propagates its acceptability in the immediate peer group of the gainer.

    Similarly numerous (if not more numerous) studies exist with regards to similarities in the propagation of tobacco addiction, alcohol addiction, etc…

    Is it not in the interest of the society and its instrument — the government — to attempt to curb at the least these second hand effects? If not through a form of ‘paternalism’ that pushes the behavior of some individuals, what options are available to prevent the eventual ‘bill’ that a whole society will confront?

    As example, it appears that in the U.S. we are now confronting the toll of decades if not a century or more of poor decisions propagating worse ones with regards to diet.

  • 10 Julian Sanchez // Apr 8, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    It seems to me a bridge too far to class the influence of an example as an “externality.” Almost every “private” behavior is something we’re first exposed to by others. If even this sort of “second order” effect serves to justify intervention, the idea of a realm of personal autonomy for self-regarding acts becomes meaningless.

  • 11 Pithlord // Apr 8, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    In most — possibly all — cases (certainly in contract law, which is my professional interest), some sort of default is inevitable. It can be given by custom or by policy, but it can’t be a product of choice.

    Libertarianism is therefore beside the point in how defaults should be selected. Either you embrace some Burkean/Hayekian absolute preference for the wisdom of custom over policy or you think seriously about the proposed default rule.

  • 12 All Slippery Slopes Lead To Robert Young « Around The Sphere // Apr 10, 2010 at 6:39 am

    […] Julian Sanchez: I’ve been relatively open to at least some of the ideas circulating under those banners—at least as libertarians go—but Glen’s arguments certainly provide ample reason for severe skepticism.  Certainly, I share his concern that initiatives that begin as “soft” paternalism, in the form of default rules meant to steer people away from ill-considered decisions, may “harden” if people continue to make what regulators perceive as the “wrong” choices.  In particular, I think there’s an unjustified tendency to  privilege temporally later preferences—so that if someone in ill-health regrets their youthful excesses, we treat this as reflecting the “real” preference. But if we think people overvalue the short term pleasures of fatty food, drink, or tobacco, and undervalue the long-term costs, surely it’s equally possible that those costs will loom large when the bill comes due, and cause people to discount too heavily all the enjoyment they got while running up the tab. […]

  • 13 Mael // Apr 28, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    “Why can’t the sick just rely on charity care?” I know its too much work and we’d rather just build another huge bureaucracy which will ultimately have as its best interest itself because complex systems oriented away from individuals always take on a an aspect of self interest. The real danger and we have seen it materialize in the UK and other such health systems is you end up arriving at a blanket justification for restricting the liberties of the individuals involved because of a perceived cost to society or whether treatments are cost effective given the projected remaining lifespan of an individual. Women with breast cancer then don’t get the latest cancer drug because it is not cost effective to the health system and aged Veterans don’t get medication to prevent retinal detachment because they won’t be around much longer anyway and by making sure that anyone that goes outside the system is penalized it forever chains the individual to a system whether or not in benefits them at all and one that is totally unresponsive to micro individual needs.

    It isn’t as much about politics as science. Complexity is a well studied concept and it is a travesty it has not be applied more to analyze optimal political systems. I think we would find that as with evolution, advanced computational systems, and most complex systems that humanity and each individual included would benefit far more from an individual centric system that emphasizes individuals making good or bad choices for themselves independent of forced serial processes. This would result in the system evolving to serve the needs and desires of the individual human being. It would provide for the widest diversity of ideas driven by the reality of daily lives.

    There is a reason why bureaucracy and the political class seems to grow further and further at odds with the will of the people. It is because the system is growing to optimally serve itself before anything else. It is a cancerous self-sentience by proxy and it is the monster that has killed many of previous human civilizations. The whole of modern human civilization and human evolution that is at stake while our intellectuals fiddle at phantoms.

  • 14 Craig Hubley // Feb 28, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    “There is a reason why bureaucracy and the political class seems to grow further and further at odds with the will of the people. It is because the system is growing to optimally serve itself before anything else. It is a cancerous self-sentience by proxy and it is the monster that has killed many of previous human civilizations.” And many organizations within.

    See Parkinson. A corollary of his well-known principle that work expands to fill the time alloted for it, is that fulltime staff will hire more (and less competent) fulltime staff to do it, and to fire when they are caught doing it wrong (not when it’s done wrong, but only when they’re caught). Inability to fire is the basis of every total civilization collapse.

  • 15 プロペシア通販 // Sep 24, 2011 at 12:33 am

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  • 16 Paleo // Sep 26, 2013 at 12:52 am

    That is a great entry!
    I wish you were writing more about Economics.

  • 17 Paleo // Sep 26, 2013 at 12:52 am

    That is a great entry!
    I wish you were writing more about Economics.

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