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Ozimek's Challenge to Paternalists

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Is paternalism a slippery slope or not?  People like Thaler insist that it's not.  Adam Ozimek ingeniously explains why disbelievers keep missing the evidence that the slippery slope is all too real.  Evidence like... San Francisco's ban on the Happy Meal:

Defenders of paternalism argue there is no slippery slope because a) where would we fall from here? and b) why haven't we begun sliding yet? I rush to point out paternalism that targets sugar and salt, and the defenders argue "Well, that's just good policy. Let me know when we've actually started sliding down the slippery slope". What happens is paternalists are forever moving the goalposts, and declaring the newest ban or tax just reasonable policy. Their burden of proof demands that that we slide two, three, or four steps down the slope at once instead of one step at at time, since the one step we're taking now is just reasonable.

Better still, Ozimek lays down a bet-like challenge to paternalists:
[I]t would be useful to for critics of the slippery slope theory of paternalism to demarcate now what future policies would constitute evidence that they are wrong, because my guess is the point of demarcation will move right along down the slope with policy. Several years ago many of today's critics of slippery slope theory would have said that an attempt to regulate salt would constitute evidence. But now, farther down the slope, salt regulation is just sensible policy.
Do any paternalists care to go on the record?

P.S. As usual, turn-about's fair play.  Do any anti-paternalists care to go on the record about the absurd policies our slide will take us to in twenty years?


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COMMENTS (32 to date)
James writes:

I'll quit believing that there is a slippery slope if, over any period of a year or more, no government agency in the US imposes a ban on any product that wasn't previously banned and no government agency mandates any safety feature that wasn't previously mandatory.

Seriously, what do the pro paternalism people actually mean when they deny a slippery slope exists? The anti-paternalist claim is that a paternalistic government will eventually impose more paternalism than pro-paternalism people currently claim to want. Does anyone who favors some amount of paternalism actually admit to believing that the government will not implement paternalist policies other than the ones that they currently favor?

Stephen Smith writes:

Am I the only one who can't muster any outrage over this whole banning-the-Happy-Meal thing? McDonald's survives pretty much entirely on corn subsidies, with the rest made up of restrictive food handling laws for its competitors and a pattern of enforced surban sprawl (which I'd probably count as third in importance after crop subsidies and food safety laws, but ahead of genuine innovation and actual business acumen). The fact that libertarians continue to defend it as the free market's greatest gift to humanity is one of the reasons we aren't taken seriously.

Banning Happy Meals is clearly not the solution to this mess, but in the broader game of statist Jenga, at least it's not really piling much on to the problem.

Randy writes:

I asked myself a question the other day, "How would my life be different if I didn't have to do all the things that the government makes me do?"

The thing that leaps out at me is that I would probably have been able to effectively retire 10 to 20 years earlier than I can under the current political system. And I think that's the measure of the cost of paternalism. Slippery slope? Hell yes - and we're already in a free fall.

Hyena writes:

Let's see.

In the past 100 years we've done away with temperance, anti-pornography, sodomy laws, comic book censorship, reefer madness and miscegenation laws. I think paternalism has actually been on a downward trend.

Tobacco laws are at least partially motivated by the industry's insistence on dishonesty. So too with the latest Alice Waterite backlash on food, though it's buffeted by rich hipsters who don't realize that taste isn't nutrition.

Steve Miller writes:

Absurd policies I expect to see in the next 20 years, just based on common, time-honored holiday celebration practices:

Bans on trick-or-treating
Bans on any child costume with a mask (especially ninja costumes)
Bans on deep fried turkey
Bans on either live or artificial Christmas trees (it's hard to say whether paternalists will find the cutting of live trees more offensive than the practice of putting up plastic trees, or the other way around)
Bans on Christmas Caroling
Bans on Mardis Gras plastic beads (not in New Orleans, maybe, but elsewhere)
Bans on Easter Egg hunts
Bans on charcoal briquettes, lighter fluid
Bans on mylar balloons

I'm sure some of these have already happened, and I'm merely unaware.


Les writes:

The failure and repeal of Prohibition should have taught us the inherent flaw of paternalism.

Paternalism provides a profit incentive to sell prohibited substances on the black market. That profit incentive tends to attract buyers and sellers to the black market.

So paternalism is inherently a slippery slope towards the black market.

Bill N writes:

If we let them tax income, someday they'll take as much as 10%
(I'm sure someone said this in 1916)

Hume writes:

I aleady have a $500 bet with a friend re: calorie limits by 2030.

Mercer writes:

I don't see why people are upset with bans on Happy Meals but support keeping marijuana illegal for adults. I expect government to be more paternalistic toward toddlers then adults.

Hyena writes:

@Steve Miller

Neither a Christmas tree ban nor a Mardi Gras bead ban would be paternalistic.

Paternalism is not "policies I hate", it's specifically policies meant to protect you from yourself. If a municipality bans something because people never do seem to dispose of it correctly, that's not "for your own good". Likewise, the various public smoking bans aren't paternalistic: they're just simple majoritarian will against smokers.

You can argue whatever you like about such laws, but you can't argue they're paternalistic. They're not for your protection, they're for mine against you.

wd40 writes:

Slippery-slope arguments are one-sided views of social processes. The metaphor suggests that society has a natural momentum downward, but that we are not there yet. Economists who have an understanding of both symmetry and equilibrium should be very skeptical of slippery-slope arguments. A natural question for economists to ask is why we are we not already in a stable equilibrium and why doesn't the slippery slope work in the opposite direction. In this case, why doesn't a modest reduction in a regulation lead down the slippery slope to no regulation at all. The slippery slope argument is engaged in by those who don't like the direction of change, no matter how small, but never feared by those who are in favor of the change. Bryan who has a distaste for regulation and fears the slippery slope of more regulation, does not accept the slippery slope arguments used by the religious right against homosexual marriage. Aren't slippery slope arguments debating tricks to scare people about small and desirable changes?

Chris Koresko writes:

Stephen Smith: McDonald's survives pretty much entirely on corn subsidies, with the rest made up of restrictive food handling laws for its competitors and a pattern of enforced surban sprawl (which I'd probably count as third in importance after crop subsidies and food safety laws, but ahead of genuine innovation and actual business acumen).

How is this consistent with their success in numerous countries outside the US?

Kglass writes:

I'd bet on local-level high fructose corn syrup bans within ten years. I will also bet that paternalists will say that local level restrictions do not matter. Then, when they start to scale up, I will bet the paternalists will say that the restrictions worked so well on the local level that it just makes sense as good policy.

Chris Koresko writes:

Hyena: In the past 100 years we've done away with temperance, anti-pornography, sodomy laws, comic book censorship, reefer madness and miscegenation laws. I think paternalism has actually been on a downward trend.

Do those laws really count as paternalism? To me they look more like attempts to use government coercion to improve the overall social climate, rather than to protect individuals from their own poor choices. Contrast them with helmet and seatbelt laws, or, arguably, most consumer-protection laws, for example.

Grant Gould writes:

Steve Miller --

When I lived in Brookline, MA there was a law banning live Christmas trees in some classes of residences because of the fire hazard. This was, I should add in all fairness, a genuine concern: dried out Christmas trees with incandescent Christmas lights are a real fire risk).

There is no paternalist policy you can imagine that someone, somewhere isn't trying already.

Josh Weil writes:

@Stephen Smith

Piling on a government intervention to solve a previous intervention more often than not, makes thing worse.

The Onion is on record as predicting sugar restrictions.

On the other hand...

One problem with slippery slope predictions is that sometimes the "herd of independent minds" starts to stampede in a different direction and ban the stuff they wanted to make compulsory a few decades earlier.

Hyena writes:

Mr. Koresko,

Let's see:

Prohibition, reefer madness and all other temperance-type movements focus on how people come to be in the iron grip of demon rum/grass/jazz. So that's pretty paternalistic.

Anti-pornography was about how a little bit of ankle--no, seriously, think back, way back--was destroying the youth of America.

Sodomy laws were about keeping good Christians in the missionary position.

Comic book censorship was how we tried to keep Horror Mystery #37 from ruining the lives of 8 year-olds. What with it's confusingly voluptuous zombies, it could drive people to perversion!

And miscegenation wasn't just how we kept the world free of mixed babies, it's how we protected the honor of our daughters from the ravages of jazz.

Hume writes:

One problem with universal healthcare is the ammunition it provides paternalists. Instead of saying "no more Diet Coke: its 'bad' for you and makes you unhealthy," they can simply assert "no more Diet Coke: it's unhealthy, causing healthcare costs to rise; thus, we are protecting ourselves from your irresponsible decisions."

ajb writes:

For many of us (and I'm no libertarian) the State slid down the slippery slope a long time ago. Everything from the demonization of tobacco, to the affirmative action quotas, to environmentalism as religion, to the reversal of sexual attitudes so that tradition is evil but deviance is protected, suggest exactly the process Ozimek notes. The goalposts have been moved so often it's not about reason anymore. It suggests the importance of cultural and political warfare without regard to fairness or truth.

Jacob Oost writes:

What do you mean by "paternalism," anyway? I really want to know, I'm not sure what you're arguing. When Milton Friedman said that he favored "some" government policies to protect children and what he called "feeble-minded" people (I guess we'd say the mentally ill and cognitively impaired today), was that the type of paternalism you're talking about?

If laws banning child prostitution or child porn or exploitation of child labor (not necessarily *all* child labor) are paternalism, then they are examples of paternalism I can accept. A law keeping a grown man with an IQ of 40 from being his own guardian is also debatable.

Chris Koresko writes:

@Hyena,

I not trying to be provocative here, but I think you may be reacting to the perceived unreasonableness of the laws rather than to their intent. Consider:

Prohibition, reefer madness and all other temperance-type movements focus on how people come to be in the iron grip of demon rum/grass/jazz.

Agreed that the motivation could be protecting people from themselves, but my impression of Prohibition is that it was an attempt to reshape society. Modern drug laws seem to be motivated in large part by the fear that people using drugs may become dangerous to others (drunk driving, emotional instability, violence, etc.)

Anti-pornography was about how a little bit of ankle--no, seriously, think back, way back--was destroying the youth of America.

Destroying the youth of America sounds like a social issue to me.

Sodomy laws were about keeping good Christians in the missionary position.

Again, this could be construed as an attempt to shape society rather than to protect people from themselves. Do you disagree?

And miscegenation wasn't just how we kept the world free of mixed babies, it's how we protected the honor of our daughters from the ravages of jazz.

Certainly this is an intrusion into peoples' private lives, but it's hard to see it as the government protecting individuals from themselves. In fact, "protecting our daughters" sounds like individuals using government coercion as a tool for their own purposes.

Maybe the point I'm trying to make would be more clear with a couple more examples of what I would call paternalism:

  • Consumer protection regulations banned small off-road vehicles because of lead in their paint.

  • Requirements to wear seatbelts in cars and helmets on motorcycles (I mentioned this one before). Clearly this is intended to take away individuals' ability to choose the level of risk they find acceptable, not to protect the people around them or society in general.
  • Many drugs intended and used for purely medical purposes are legally available only with a doctor's prescription. Again, the intent seems to be to prevent individuals from hurting themselves. I wonder why so Libertarians spend so much time arguing for legalizing marijuana and ignore this much more serious issue.

I thought your response to Steve Miller was a nice summary of the point I was trying to make. You said:

Paternalism is not "policies I hate", it's specifically policies meant to protect you from yourself.

Steve Miller writes:

Christmas tree ban: for my own safety, for my own planet, it's just about variations on a theme. The argument is always that it's all for my own good, and I'm just too stupid to realize it.

Mardis gras beads: same thing. Banning these is for our own good. I was actually thinking of a variety of "protect the children" reasons, which are generally considered paternalistic, no?

You guys are thinking too hard -- if the premise is that buyers won't be responsible and thus need a helping (regulating) hand, that's paternalism.

Steve Miller writes:

Collective action problems do inspire a combination of "STOP this externality" and paternalistic impulses. But to some extent, for everything mentioned, the argument is that I, the buyer (or smoker, or drinker, or drug user, etc.) will also be better off under paternalism. Yes society will benefit generally, but that's not why we end up with warning labels on cigarettes or require motorcycle helmets, seat belts, ban happy meals, etc. People make the externality arguments, but they SELL the paternalism.

I wasn't really pretending to understand the exact rationale for everything I listed -- I simply thought, what are things that people enjoy that impose small risks on both themselves and others?

agnostic writes:

Here's a second to whoever mentioned the implausible assumption that things move in one direction only.

All these things look cyclical, including the moral panics about drugs, exciting dance music, and out-of-control sexuality -- these panics resurfaced during the '60s through the '80s, after lying dormant for most of the '30s through the '50s, and before returning to dormancy again from the mid-'90s through today.

Same with panics about Satanism or godlessness (which under one view is a paternalistic control of religious freedom) -- widespread during the Roaring Twenties (Scopes monkey trial), along with above panics, then died, then resurfaced with the new evangelism of the '60s through the '80s, then died off again in the re-secularization of the mid-'90s to present.

In any case, the happy meal ban is not a good example since the Bay Area is empty of actual children who could be affected by the law. If they start doing this for food on school grounds, then it'll be paternalistic. Of course there are two opposite trends there -- putting more vegan garbage in the cafeteria, while lining the hallways with sugar dispensers.

David Friedman writes:

Hyena writes:

"In the past 100 years we've done away with temperance, anti-pornography, sodomy laws, comic book censorship, reefer madness and miscegenation laws. I think paternalism has actually been on a downward trend."

100 years takes us back well before prohibition, so although there were people arguing against the consumption of alcohol, it was for the most part perfectly legal. And I don't think the current age limits, or anything similar existed. So strike "temperance" for your list.

As for reefer madness, you have it backwards. The first state law against marijuana was passed by California in 1913. A hundred years ago not only was marijuana legal, so were opium and cocaine, although there were restrictions of various sorts. Heroin didn't become fully illegal until 1924. On net, the shift in drug laws over the past hundred years has been towards much more restriction, not less, although there have been ups and downs along the way.

And although miscegenation laws are gone, age related legal restrictions on sex have increased, in particular restrictions on age of marriage.

mdc writes:

I'd give 50% odds that tobacco will be banned outright in at least one OECD nation in 20 years' time. I'd say something similar about internet regulation, but any example I could think of that isn't too outlandish is already being done in Australia, so I think the ship has sailed to bet on that.

More generally, I think the slippery slope has already reached the bottom philosophically. There is no real argument in the mainstream against the principle of it. The only issue is that people are viscerally opposed to anything more than 1 or 2 'steps' down the slope, which as is stated in the blog-post is just shifted further down with each new regulation.

Dr. T writes:

Chris Koresko attempts to create a false dichotomy between paternalism and shaping society. How does one shape society without affecting the individual? Government efforts to shape society are by defition paternalistic. Making it illegal to use mind- or mood-altering chemicals may be an attempt to create a society that requires no drugs to be content, but it also is paternalistic. Banning pornography may be an attempt to create a society that avoids sexualizing body images, but it also is paternalistic. Banning certain types of foods may be an attempt to improve the health of all persons, but it also is paternalistic.

To me, all government paternalism is wrong. I don't need bureaucrats to tell me what to eat, what to drink, what drugs to use, what safety measures to take when driving or cycling, when to mow my lawn, or when to close my garage door. (Yes, the city of Germantown, Tennessee bans homeowners from keeping garage doors open unless they are working in their garages.) As others have noted, the slippery slope argument was proved decades ago. All that we're doing is arguing about the steepness of the slope.

Hyena writes:

Prof. Friedman,

I actually read pretty much everything you had posted to your site while I was in college and have been heavily influenced by it. It pains me, then, that you ignore the relevance of non-government social controls.

Second, I intended my time period to include both the rise of restrictionism and what I feel is its overall decline. I did this for linguistic reasons; a sentence about the elimination of, for example, the temperance movement seems odd if its span doesn't comfortably include the movement.

Third, net of the repeal of Prohibition, drug laws have become massively less restrictive. The amount of people engaged in an activity matters quite a bit. On the same theme of severity, the elimination of miscegenation laws opened previously banned relationships; in my view, the introduction of age restriction merely delays them. "Never" is much worse than "not right now".

Fourth, I should further secure my statement by adding to it the decline of Jim Crow in its paternalistic aspect and the steady erosion of "the white man's burden".

Hyena writes:

Mr. Miller,

By your logic, the entire legal system is based on paternalism because no one wants to live in a society where I can run you down on the street and there is nary a thing to be done about it.

John Thacker writes:

I don't particularly care whether you call this good or bad, but the Great Ape Personhood movement (and then moving on to pets) is something that would be dismissed out of hand as ludicrous slippery slope at one point but I think has a chance in the next 30 years.

Alejandro writes:

There isn't existing proof of anyone dying of your marijuana overdose, but this won't preclude the prospect of going through adverse or even unpleasant effects within the next consumed in heaps. For comparison's cause, alcohol overdoses case approximately 5, 000 casualties annually. This can be cited being a reason which marijuana might be safer when compared to other pills, like alcoholic.

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