Arnold Kling  

Against Paternalism

PRINT
Technology Innovation vs. Gove... Economics of Higher Education ...

Glenn Reynolds makes an articulate point about paternalism.


Another -- and it's a lesson that policy wonks seem slow to learn -- is that people other than policy wonks are capable of learning, and of changing their behavior on their own. Given the chance, and the information, they observe things that work and things that don't, and adjust their lives in ways that seem most likely to get them what they want, if they are allowed to do so. This means that projections of catastrophic future ills are usually wrong, as people learn from experience.

I think that perhaps the most important issue to which this might be applied today is that of obesity.

When I was in St. Louis helping take care of my Dad after a fall a couple of weeks ago, I took a walk in Forest Park. I saw a woman doing strenuous sit-up exercises and I remarked that they looked difficult. She was just finishing, got up, and joined me for walking. She was eager to talk about her new commitment to fitness.

She described her exercise regimen, and I asked her about diet. She said that she now eats mostly steamed fish and fruits and vegetables, which sounds to me like a Dean Ornish approach rather than one of the more dubious fad diets.

She said that she had lost 12 pounds in three weeks, and she still had a long way to go, but her goal was to lose weight slowly and keep it off, not lose it quickly and gain it back. Again, this is consistent with what I have heard is the best medical advice.

What struck me most of all was that this well-informed approach for fighting obesity was being undertaken by a middle-aged African-American woman, unemployed (she was going to start a job as a medical courier the following week), married to a janitor. It seems to me that if someone of that demographic knows how to fight obesity on her own, then maybe going after Big Food with lawsuits is pretty misguided.

For Discussion. Hal Varian once sent me a note about one of my essays in which he said that rather than a distinction between "haves" and "have-nots," the real digital divide is between "information wants" and information "want-nots." Is there a paternalistic solution for this?


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (17 to date)
Brock writes:

"Assigned" Discussion :-)

I think the easiest non-paternalistic solution to information not-wants is to make information freely available, but otherwise just leave them alone while holding them responsible for their actions.

This woman you met in the park is clearly one of the motivated ones. Maybe her neighbor isn't as motivated, but when her neighbor is surrounded by slim, fit folks she might GET motivated to slim down. Or she might not.

Really, why does it matter is your neighbor is fat, gay-married, or a drug user, etc., as long as it doesn't interfere with your life and as long as she's willing to accept the consequences? No skin off my back.

The Big Food lawsuits (and the lawsuit culture generally) is incredibly harmful to this sense of responsibility. I don't know how many times I've heard "Well, if I get hurt I'll just sue someone." That's a perverse incentive.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

The problem is often not a lack of information, but an excess of it, much of it wrong. Being able to separate nonsense from accurate information is a critical skill, not widely possessed in my opinion.

There is a natural human tendency to want to think that problems have easy answers. That makes it even harder to buckle down and start working on the difficult, but realistic, solution.

Ivan Kirigin writes:

A WSJ article pointed out that many people are acting like a pill will solve their obesity problems, and then quickly added that they might be right!

Lawsuits are a disease, but the motivation for 'free' content on the internet, the latest and newest drugs to solve our problems, and the general desire of people to live a better life (often with the best, newest consumer goods), will counter that problem.

But the problem for individuals with things they can improve is by far not lack of information or too much information. The problem is motivation, and lack of it because we are saved from out problems too easily, as was already pointed out.

Too bad you rarely get crowd pleaser, paternalistic politicians who say "look at yourselves! Shape up or pay!"

Lawrance George Lux writes:

I first must come clean, so as to not be deceptive: I am overweight (fat to you Joggers) and I smoke. I have been overeating and smoking for over forty years.

Every paternalistic attempt to force information on Anyone has always led to counter-culture activities. Prohibition brought Speakeasies, Tobacco use is starting to increase for the first time in thirty years, after the Government paternalistic PR campaign. Fat people like Hamburgers and Fries, and know they are going to die some day anyway. The Health industry has yet to prove Smokers suffer from any greater number of illnesses than do other people, they just sufffer from these illnesses at an earlier age. I know my mind will go before my body, and I can see an attributable Death benefit from early expiration.

This is the trouble about paternalistic pressure to force all to the information-knows. Great numbers of Individuals mean great differences in Core values. What is important to One, may mean nothing to another. It is like smoking, the health care industry cannot prove like medical costs will not be incurred by non-Smokers-just delayed, so why tax Smokers for an overwhelming share of the health care burden. lgl

WichitaBoy writes:

Paternalism is always appealing to those who view themselves as the pater (or mater, cf. Hillary Clinton), as well as to those who imagine themselves in need of some nurturing (which is all of us, at one point or another).

This has always formed the basis of that natural alliance between the paternalistic elites (FDR) or would-be elites (Krugman), on the one hand, and those who feel powerless, on the other. This explains the Democratic party in a nutshell.

The kicker is that the elite paternalists have no incentive to pursue any policy whose real effect is to elevate the downtrodden, and so they don't. They have no interest in that which actually works (individual responsibility and accountability) and every interest in programs which just happen to maintain the status quo. Particularly when they get to run those programs at large salaries.

Rick Stewart writes:

State paternalism is seldom a true desire to help someone who cannot help themselves. Instead it is more often a desire to force someone other than myself, to help someone I refuse to help myself. The test, of course, is whether or not I have exhausted my own resources before seeking access to your resources, against your will.

The current paternalistic solution to information 'have-nots' is public education, which we now hold responsible (although not accountable) for teaching our children how to keep their fingernails clean, how to tie their shoes, how to prevent pregnancy, how to manage their personal finances, how to avoid using drugs, etc. As one might expect, as they grow older our children increasingly have dirty fingernails, do not tie their shoes, get pregnant, run out of money, use more drugs, etc. Did I mention they also fail to learn how to read and write?

A paternalistic individual, as opposed to state, might open an after school workshop in his/her house, with free acces to the Internet, free tutoring, perhaps even healthy eating/cooking classes. If this proved useful, of course, the individual's neighbor would begin lobbying for government funding to expand the program, being unwilling to donate his/her own labor toward the same end.

Sam Jew writes:

I would like to know what "paternalism" is supposed to mean as it applies to the state. As in a definition of the term. It sounds political to me.

Ilaine writes:

"I don't know how many times I've heard "Well, if I get hurt I'll just sue someone." That's a perverse incentive."

Oh, yeah, the country is full of lawyers just stumbling over themselves to bring fake lawsuits on behalf of morons, who have nothing better to do with their time than work for free in the hope that they can browbeat a jury of dumb bunnies into forking over someone else's money, while defense counsel and judges just stare off into space and clean their fingernails.

Life is so simple and sweet when you're a trial lawyer. Nobody else on earth has it so easy.

*Bzzzzzt!* Does this make sense to you? Are people really so stupid? Or is this an urban legend?

Rick Stewart writes:

Sam, I used the term 'state paternalism' to mean the state attempting to take care of people who appear not to be able to take care of themselves. M-W's definition is significantly broader ('a system under which an authority undertakes to supply needs or regulate conduct of those under its control in matters affecting them as individuals as well as in their relations to authority and to each other').

Politically the Democrats appear to want to paternalistically 'supply needs' while the Republicans appear to want to paternalistically 'regulate conduct.'

I would prefer neither, and suggest the rest of the country would agree, could it experience the alternative in the form of an A-B comparison as opposed to a linear historical march.

Sam Jew writes:

So should we scrap social security, medicare, and medicaid? Economically, it makes sense to do so. Politically, I don't think it would fly.

Dave Sheridan writes:

Arnold, there's a paternalistic solution for everything if you just think long and hard.

The brute force solution has, I believe, been tried in places: give the have-not/want nots computers, even installation, and pretend they've now crossed the divide. Don't trouble yourself with how or whether they actually use the things. They 'have' it whether they 'want' it or not. You've empowered them!

Solution #2 is to provide sticks along with the carrots. Give people an motivation to need information. I worked for a big company where (and when) e-mail was relatively new. A new senior exec was appalled that his reports didn't use the system. He gave them an assignment that required them to learn the system and to respond personally to an e-mail from him within two days, and conditioned part of their bonuses on successful completion of the task. Everyone was using the system almost immediately.

Should the government do this? No. Your jogger example applies to information access. The information age has penetrated the culture, including every income and language group in America. Every kid whose parents are want-nots is exposed to it at school, on TV and through friends. We've reached a point where everyone has real choices, just as everyone can choose exercise and a healthy diet.

Straw Man writes:

Loosening intellectual property laws would make knowledge more freely available. However, this seems to be a free-market solution more than it is a paternalistic one.

Joe Stafura writes:

It is interesting that the paternalism that is generally reviled by this group is identified as the state. In times past and increasingly today, paternalism came from the church. Religion has a much longer history of telling us what is good for us than the state. This was predicated on trust, you can trust an invisable god whereas you could never trust a self interested person, unless that person was connected to god, a minister, rabbi, iman and the like.

Paternalism is woven deep into our culture and self determination and responsibility has always been look upon as something that could only belong to the leaders.

Arnold Kling writes:

"Paternalism is woven deep into our culture and self determination and responsibility has always been look upon as something that could only belong to the leaders."

Christopher Lasch (author of The Culture of Narcissm and The Revolt of the Elites) would disagree with this strongly. His view is that at the time of the Revolution and for several decades thereafter, American democracy was about self determination and responsibility for the masses.

Jonathan writes:

A previous writer writes:
"I don't know how many times I've heard "Well, if I get hurt I'll just sue someone." That's a perverse incentive."

I can answer this one -- zero. Very few people would trade being able to walk, see, or continue their "normal" lives for the money one in lawsuits.

I challenge the prior posters to show evidence that people are getting fat because they think they can win a lawsuit.

Jonathan writes:

There are a few facts that seem missing from a lot of discussions on the problem of frivolous lawsuits. First, if the plaintiff's attorney loses -- a very common occurrence in questionable cases-- the attorney does not get paid, regardless of his expenses! This is a strong disincentive to take truly frivolous cases (except in a few notable counties that have been allowed to perpetrate what ammounts to fraud). In fact the incentive is for a lawyer to find a valid case and settle quickly. Second, juries, except in cases where regional or racial hostilities dominate, often reject frivolous cases. Thirdly, many of the huge multimillion dollar personal injury awards reflect the large medical costs the injured person will incur for a lifetime of nursing care and special equipment. These costs will be incurred by society anyhow, unless we just decide to let such people die in the street.

While the frivolous lawsuits are annoying and costly, the alternatives are either
1) rely entirely on government employees and regulators to identify lawbreakers who cheat or injure people.
2) have no real enforcement mechanism beyond the marketplace, remembering that the marketplace cannot deal with externalities and suffers from the cost of distributing information.

Our current system has the advantage that we have three venues for dealing with various misbehaviors -- the marketplace, the government regulators, and the private attorneys.

poster art, posters writes:

Should the government do this? No. Your jogger example applies to information access. The information age has penetrated the culture, including every income and language group in America.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top