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.