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Henry Farrell's post on paternalism and prescription drugs reminds me that I should try and be as clear as he is when discussing this and say that I don't see anything wrong in principle with paternalism. There are often excellent reasons not to impose paternalistic policies, but they're basically pragmatic ones. Oftentimes, you get better results on average by letting people choose for themselves even if some individuals wind up choosing poorly. Other times, it's important for the long run to let people make certain sorts of mistakes so that they learn their lessons. But that something is paternalistic is not, in and of itself, a good reason to oppose it.

One thing I would observe is that paternalism quite literally gets a bad name. The implication is that any observation that a given person may, if left to his own devices, fail to act in his own best long-term interests is somehow infantilizing. This, however, is silly. That perfectly normal adult human beings often fail to act in their own best long-term interests is clear and well known. Associating efforts to prevent such behavior with treating people like children is unfair. The point is simply that people tend to stay alive for quite a long time and the interests of you-now (i.e., the decision-maker) can quite easily diverge from the interests of you-in-two-decades even though you-in-two-decades is a person whose interests ought to count just as you-now's interests count. Beyond that simple divergence of interests, there are some systematic biases in decision-making that stem from the fact that human beings did not evolve so as to have a natural grasp of statistics and so forth. We all have an inbuilt tendency to completely neglect small chances, even if the consequences of those small chances are enormous.

One could go on like this, but the other important thing to do is to separate questions about paternalism from other issues about the legitimate bounds of state power. Many people believe it is illegitimate to use the coercive authority of the state in order to help people buy, for example, taxing some people in order to give food to starving people. If you believe that you should, naturally enough, also oppose efforts at state paternalism. But most people who object to collective charity ventures of that sort have no problem with charity as an individual initiative, and many even believe there is an obligation to act charitably on an individual basis. If you believe that, you ought to also believe in a duty to practice paternalism on an individual level, trying to dissuade people from making bad choices about their lives. If, like a normal person, you think it's legitimate -- and, indeed, obligatory -- to use the coercive power of the state in order to help people, then you should also find it obligatory to deploy the coercive power of the state for paternalistic purposes when pragmatically appropriate.

My thinking on this has been greatly influenced by Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons which has probably shaped my overall thinking more than any other book. I hesitate somewhat to recommend it to people, since it's a pretty inside-baseball technical philosophy kind of book that doesn't really directly discuss the sort of policy questions in which there's a broad degree of interest in. But I certainly think the ideas it expouses deserve a larger audience, and perhaps the best way for that to happen is just for people to read the book. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who read the book but who didn't specifically study philosophy to hear whether or not you found it valuable in any way.

January 25, 2005 | Permalink


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» Guess I'm not "Normal" from The American Mind
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I read the book (and studied philosophy) and found it excrutiating.

Posted by: Realish | Jan 25, 2005 4:03:28 PM

The problem with paternalism isn't that it "treats people like children"; it's that it violates their autonomy. Assuming that we are speaking of mature, unimpaired agents, respecting the ability of such agents to direct the course of their own lives ought itself to be regarded as intrisically desirable.

"[...] you ought to also believe in a duty to practice paternalism on an individual level, trying to dissuade people from making bad choices about their lives."

I don't recognize that as paternalism. Trying to talk someone out of (what you regard as) a bad choice is not the same thing as denying her the possibility of making that choice for herself, or coercing her into making a particular choice. Indeed, trying to reason with someone in this way presumes a respect for her ability to make reasoned decisions for herself.

Posted by: liver | Jan 25, 2005 4:39:47 PM

Two objections.

First, you misstate the classical definition: "paternalism" isn't trying to convince a person to follow some course of action; it's _forcing_ a person to follow a course of action (because you think it's better for them). So your claim of moral equivalency is groundless.

Second, your entire argument rests on the fact that people unaided often make bad decisions for themselves. This is true, but it's a shallow analysis, and fails to note that people make even worse decisions when they're making them for someone else, and still worse ones when they're using someone else's money to pay for those decisions.

Consider four cases:

1. I'm buying something for myself.
2. I'm buying a gift for someone else.
3. I'm using someone else's credit card to buy for myself. (Perhaps one of those Citibank commercials about identity theft?)
4. I'm an architect designing someone else's building to be built using someone else's money.

You can clearly see that there are two sources of money, my own money and someone else's money; and two destinations for the goods being acquired by that money, myself and someone else.

And you should just as clearly see that the further the source and/or destination gets from the decisionmaker, the less motivated the decisionmaker is to make the right choices.

Every homeowner knows this; you ALWAYS double-check the plans of any contractor you hire to do work or plan work. True, they know far more than you do; but they don't have your motivation, because they're not spending their own money.

Adding to the problem is ulterior motives, which may not be "bad" per se but certainly complicate things. There's an entire branch of economics, "Public Choice Economics", that deals with this.


Posted by: William Tanksley | Jan 25, 2005 4:43:58 PM

re: public choice economics

"Can you direct me to the railway station?" asks the stranger. "Certainly," says the local, pointing in the opposite direction, towards the post office, "and would you post this letter for me on your way?" "Certainly," says the stranger, resolving to open it to see if it contains anything worth stealing.

Amartya Sen

Posted by: absynthe | Jan 25, 2005 4:58:31 PM

"say that I don't see anything wrong in principle with paternalism."

Keep using this expression and I will stop groveling. I thought, as a fanatical pragmatist, you had no principles. In fact I told someone you everything as a means to another means to another...world without ends.

Your righteous nominalist credentials are in question.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jan 25, 2005 5:23:45 PM

A word of caution: it's fairly rare that we have a good enough handle on what people's goals are to accurately diagnose a cognitive failure. In Farrell's case, we know what people want - to be healthy at the minimum cost. In Richard Thaler's examples from finance, we know what people want - to maximize their portfolio's risk-adjusted return. But in many other cases, like allegedly incorrect discount rates, various kinds of addiction, risky behaviors, etc. it's not nearly as clear. In these cases, paternalism isn't likely to maximize social utility (since, in general, people know their own preferences best).

Posted by: Ryan | Jan 25, 2005 5:29:34 PM

Most simply, people will oppose the idea of paternalism since it creates an essence of control. Parents have control, people don't want to be controlled (for the most part). Shouldn't we err on the side of freedom instead of paternalism?

Posted by: Marty Andrade | Jan 25, 2005 5:40:13 PM

I think the appropriate level of paternalism is that of guard rails on the freeway. If you're really determined to drive your car off the side of the freeway, the guard rails won't stop you, but they make it harder to go off the freeway by accident.

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Jan 25, 2005 5:50:14 PM

William Tanksley: Matt already covered your point #2. Your argument is pragmatic, not moral.

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Jan 25, 2005 5:51:39 PM

I also don't think paternalism is neccesarily bad. I am sympathetic to pragmatic libertarian arguments, but these arguments are often just cover for a strong theoretical libertarian view. On the other hand, people get carried away with the paternalism as well.

This article on libertarian paternalism


argues that, in a lot of cases, default options can be designed in a manner that help people select the correct option for themselves. People currently do foolish things like not signing up for a 401K programs just because they are overwelmed by choices.

If the defaults are switched to a system that automatically signed people up for a 401K with an age-appropriate mix of investments, but allowed for an opt-out and for selection of other investment choices, people would end up better off without restricting anyone's autonomy.

There is no good reason that we should not do such things. The lack of such solutions points to a general failure to effectively balance autonomy and other concerns in the construction of policy.

Posted by: joe o | Jan 25, 2005 6:02:05 PM

"And you should just as clearly see that the further the source and/or destination gets from the decisionmaker, the less motivated the decisionmaker is to make the right choices."

Why would you think this is the case?

Posted by: TJ | Jan 25, 2005 6:02:29 PM

Because the decision maker neither benefits from making the right choices, (And so has precious little motive to get it right.) nor has the detailed information needed to do so even if they did.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 25, 2005 6:44:17 PM

Yeah, but that isn't how it works in the real world. People do things all day long that aren't in any way motivated by self-interest and frequently do things that disadvantage them (see poor conservatives and rich liberals).

Posted by: absynthe | Jan 25, 2005 6:48:18 PM

Not once you take psychic benefits, (The desire to think well of yourself.) into account. Of course, the problem with that is that you're going to get the same thrill out of doing something for somebody else, whether it's genuinely beneficial, or if they'd rather you left them the hell alone.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 25, 2005 6:55:54 PM

And when you get down to it, that's the real problem with paternalism, doing things for somebody else's good that they don't WANT you to do... By definition, you've just cut off your best source of feedback as to whether you're doing good or harm, by deciding to ignore what the person you're "helping" has to say about it.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 25, 2005 6:58:51 PM

Hi All,

Seems to me you are all reacting emotionally to that word "paternalistic". Freud would have been fascinated.

Over in the EU where we don't have such a knee-jerk reaction when someone says "liberty" a couple of dozen times, we use the phrase "positive freedom" instead, and contrast it with "negative freedom" which is the ability to just say no or to be uninfluenced by authority.

Lets ask a few brain-teasers.

1) Is forcing everyone to contribute to Social Security for their own good come retirement "paternalistic"?

2) Is legislating against free choice for women who wish abortions for the very lives of their unborn children "paternalistic"?

3)If the answer to 1) and 2) above are different, why?

Regards, Cernig at Newshog

Posted by: Cernig | Jan 25, 2005 7:17:28 PM

Walt, you beat me to the example. I was going to say that noone complains when we put a yellow line down the middle of a highway.

I suspect those railing against paternalism don't mean the sort exemplified in tax-favored, regulated 401K accounts, or in the notion of prescription drugs, or the age limits for drinking and driving.

Posted by: Buckaroo | Jan 25, 2005 7:36:37 PM

The problem with this "positive freedom" jazz, is that it's the moral logic equivalent of allowing division by zero in math. "Negagive" rights, properly defined, can never conflict with each other. You can argue about whether the resulting system of morality is correct, but with negative rights it's at least possible to construct a system of morality that doesn't contradict itself.

But once you admit the existance of "positive" rights, all hope of a moral system that doesn't contradict itself goes out the window, and you're left with all sorts of cases where you have to go outside whatever moral system you're using, and decide whose "rights" you're going to violate.

1. Yes. becaise you're imposing something on somebody for their own alleged good.

2. No, because you're simply prohibiting somebody from attacking somebody else. And prohibiting agression is never paternalistic unless the person being agressed against doesn't want to be protected.

So I suppose it would be paternaism, if the fetus told you to go away and let the abortion proceed. Not terribly likely.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 25, 2005 7:38:55 PM

ok, so Brett is for the privatisation of SS, on the basis of fighting paternalism in Gubment. Anyone else?

Never mind the simple fact that it is impossible to create a coherent system of morality because "morals" is a relative thang (cf Wittgenstein). It certainly doesn't admit of logic in the simple arithmetic sense.

Posted by: Cernig | Jan 25, 2005 8:53:13 PM

I don't buy it, Brett. A lot of people are happy to do well in their work. And if their work involves making decisions on the behalf of others, so be it, but many will be invested in doing that well.

Posted by: TJ | Jan 25, 2005 8:55:44 PM

Yeah, but being happy to do good doesn't require doing good, TJ, it merely requires thinking that you're doing good. Which it is really easy to divorce from really doing good, if you're purposefully ignoring the fact that the person you're doing "good" to is telling you to get out of his face.

It's even easier, if you never meet him at all.

And guess what: Many people in such positions don't give a fart, too, and are just punching the clock.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 25, 2005 9:03:38 PM

Yes, Brett- many people in many jobs are just clockwatchers. So? Fire them.

Thinking you're doing a good job while not actually doing a good job is not indistinguishable from the delusion you mention.

Posted by: TJ | Jan 25, 2005 9:33:55 PM

I'm a political theorist by training, so I've dabbled in philosophy, but I'm pretty clueless and lost in a lot of the heavy-lifting M&E literature. Or maybe I just lose interest.

Anyway, I read part III or Reasons and Persons, the section on personal identity. It was rough going, but to the extent that I understand the argument, I find it very persuasive; indeed, I'd already come to a lay version of that notion of personal identity many years ago. When I try and explain my/Parfit's understanding of personal identity to non-philosophers, they seem to feel sorry for me.

Posted by: djw | Jan 25, 2005 9:42:42 PM

TJ: In the private sector, consumers are free to stop dealing with a business if they aren't happy with the services they receive. Competitive pressures constrain laziness. That's the heart of Brett's argument. Individual consumers have no power to avoid dealing with a coercive government program. We can only rely on the good faith of government officials to do their job properly. I'd rather trust myself to run my own life.

"I suspect those railing against paternalism don't mean the sort exemplified in tax-favored, regulated 401K accounts, or in the notion of prescription drugs, or the age limits for drinking and driving."

Fist off, you really shouldn't the phrase "drinking and driving" unless you're talking about DUI. It's confusing. Second, the major complaint that paternalistic government policies is that they treat adults like children. There's no inconsistency in supporting paternalistic policies for children. Also, restrictions on driving are a particularly bad example because the primary purpose is to protect drivers from each other, not from themselves.

Prescription drugs are a fair example of a paternalistic policy, but there's no hypocracy. Everyone I know who complains about paternalism and the nanny state is also against prescription drugs.

Posted by: Xavier | Jan 25, 2005 9:54:00 PM


Tell that to the folks in towns with only a Wal-Mart. Clearly the customers that frequented said Wal-Mart rather than others did their will, and fine for them. However, the other retailers in town are gone now.

Wal-Mart raises prices. Other business leap to fill the niche thus created. "Aha!" you say, "The magic of the free market!" However, Wal-Mart is smart and huge. They've leveraged their business against their suppliers and the means of delivery- so until an entire supply chain and logistical operation can grow, everyone in town is s.o.l. Now the barrier to entry for another, similar, integrated retailer is still big, and the many, many smaller barriers to entry are quite inefficient and continue to keep prices high.

So what's a reasonable response? Enact laws against price gouging. That's coercive. It is, however, not unreasonable to protect consumers not in a position to protect themselves. People just don't have the information to deal with any medium-sized or larger corporation on any kind of symmetric footing, and frequently they are without the resources to mount any kind of effective resistance.

The private sector doesn't solve all problems. That's why we have a public sector- not because we enjoy bossing each other around.

Posted by: TJ | Jan 25, 2005 11:16:11 PM

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