Bryan Caplan  

Meta Excess

Nudged... The Side on Which My Bread is ...
Robin's remarks on libertarian paternalism take me back to the great Balan-Hanson "Paternalistic Policy:  Altruism or Arrogance?" debate.  While I agreed with Robin's position, I found his arguments extremely frustrating.  Why?  Because Robin avoided specifics paternalisms (e.g. banning cocaine) in favor of "meta level" arguments. 

Balan would say something like, "Cocaine is so dangerous that no sensible person would use it," and Robin kept replying, "If Group A wants to paternalistically stop Group B from doing X, why should we trust the judgments of the A's instead of the B's?"  Then Balan would reply something like, "Do you deny that using cocaine is a dumb thing to do?," and Robin would continue talking about A, B, and X.

I'm not surprised, then, by Robin's latest remarks:
As far as I'm concerned, all of these authors avoid the core hard problem.  Yes paternalism can be a matter of degree, but even so we need principles by which to choose what degree of paternalism is appropriate in what context.  Just repeating "More" and "Less" quickly gets tiresome.  Such principles need to explicitly take into account the fact that organizations can give folks advice instead of limiting their choices.  And any analysis based on the idea that folks can be irrationally deaf to advice is an intellectual sham if it doesn't consider similar deafness by organization decision makers. (And vice versa.)
This is a meta excess.  I oppose paternalism, but I'll still grant that smart paternalists consider "similar deafness by organization decision makers."  They don't do it at the level Robin wants.  But for any specific thing they want to ban, smart paternalists at least briefly consider whether it's worth banning.  And if they weren't convinced, they'd wonder whether it's the banners who are "irrationally deaf to advice" - and might well conclude that they are.

Robin's mistake: He's attacking a straw man.  No one in the real world is an abstract paternalist.  If you ask, "Should we let Group A stop Group B from doing X if the A's think this is for B's own good," no one answers with a blanket Yes.  Actual paternalists will only answer after they know some details abut A, B, and X.  I don't blame them.

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Thomas DeMeo writes:

"If you ask, "Should we let Group A stop Group B from doing X if the A's think this is for B's own good," no one answers with a blanket Yes. Actual paternalists will only answer after they know some details abut A, B, and X."

OK, but the problem is there are lots of X's out there. Why does one get addressed while the rest don't. Robin is right to ask for a framework, because far and away the tricky part here is in determining where paternalism should stop.

You have an intelligent paternalist deciding to stop cocaine without explaining the framework for his decision. You can talk about particular examples, but that is just another way to get to the heart of the matter, which are what principles you will use to make up your mind.

Lot's of otherwise sensible people have used cocaine without significant harm to anyone. Why not stop serving alcohol at bars to patrons who drove there? What about steak and cheese subs? Motorcycles?

Doc Merlin writes:

The meta debate needs to be had. So long as we keep looking at the specifics, the debate will go nowhere and the two sides will continue arguing in a vacuum.

Contemplationist writes:

yes but Robin's point as I can see is that you CANNOT just do this for specific instances without taking into account the meta-framework thats unmentioned (but which exists in the organisation anyway!).

tom writes:

Isn't Robin really asking for a debate on social vs. libertarian principles generally? Those are the most boring debates ever.

If we want to get-or keep-it down to real issues, there must a libertarian chart somewhere, like:

government health-retirement insurance/forced savings: programs for everything, ....., right to opt out of some/all, no programs

rights to say whatever you want: all (i.e., no gov't restrictions on your right to say anything at all and no government-permitted actions for any [true] statements, national security limits, privacy limits, socially-preferred group limits...

freedom to contract: no limits (slavery contracts ok), subject limits (no sex contracts but prenups okay), competency limits, consumer protection limits, ....

freedom to take risks (other than contracts): commit suicide, take any drug/any drug except heroin and cocaine/only alcohol and pot/only pot), ride a bike without a helmet, buy pre-salted prepared foods.

A blog debate focused on cases works better than a debate focused on principles, as long as you're looking at several cases at the same time. A "Libertarian/Socialarian Spectrum" chart would be great.

Doc Merlin writes:


I agree!

Noah Yetter writes:

If you ask, "Should we let Group A stop Group B from doing X if the A's think this is for B's own good," no one answers with a blanket Yes.

Really? I've met people who would.

CH writes:

If you think the judgment of the Group A's should be distrusted (even -- nay, especially -- if you are one of them), then Hansen's insistence is so, so important.

Doc Merlin writes:


I agree with you, if Group A is "the state" or "the majority" or "society" then, yes most collectivists (including social democrats, and social contract theorists) of all sorts will say Yes.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

The use of "Meta" pre-fixed to just about everything discussed has gotten to be absurd, even on

Why not say what you mean; what you intend to convey?

David J. Balan writes:

It's been a while, but I don't think I used "any positive amount of cocaine use" among my examples of things so obviously stupid that the very fact that someone wants to do them means that they need someone else to paternalistically make their decisions for them.

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