Bryan Caplan  

The Programmatic Paternalist

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Suppose you were a free-thinking, hard-core paternalist.  Regardless of the forms of paternalism that people in your society will accept, you're determined to give them forms of paternalism they need.  If coercing people for their own good will in fact makes them happier, you're for it - across the board, and down the line.

Question: If you were this programmatic paternalist, what novel policies would you favor?  The sky's the limit.  Would you favor stricter regulation of sexual behavior?  Censorship?  Dietary policies? The return of alcohol prohibition?  A tobacco ban?  More libertarian paternalism?  More hard paternalism? 

The only constraint on your answer should be your factual knowledge of what would actually increase human happiness.  Please avoid tautological answers such as, "Whatever people do automatically makes them as happy as they can be in their budget set."  You wouldn't say this about three-year-olds, would you?  And surely some adults have less sense than the typical three-year-old.

Please share your answer and show your work.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (18 to date)
Joe Teicher writes:

I think this a really fun thing to think about. Maybe I will put up some more ideas over the weekend.

Here is one:
I would ban all lawn chemicals (fertilizers, herbicides, etc), and I would ban lawn sprinklers. Having a perfectly green carpet around your house is very common where I live and I think that for most people they just feel like they have to do it because the neighbors will judge them or be mad at them for it. A small % of people do care a lot about how their lawn looks, but they could still maintain their lawns perfectly, it would just require a lot more work. Everyone else could relax and not stress about a little bit of brown or a few weeds.

BZ writes:

Ban: involuntary HMO's, involuntary union dues, contracts without detailed clauses for dealing with one side wanting to withdrawal, ice cream sold in containers greater than 1 pint and smaller than 1/2 gallon, government jobs with terms longer than 1 month, mel brooks movies, and finally, my job as benevolent patrician.

Salem writes:

It is well-known that humans suffer from a range of cognitive biases. Some of the most dangerous are motivated reasoning, neglecting downside risks, and a too-short time horizon. The area where these biases are at their worst is, of course, dating, where the lack of regulation and difficulty in getting good feedback has led to widespread market failure and rampant inequality. Fortunately, the government is here to help.

The government has access to the best psychological insights gained from academia, and wise technocrats able to implement these plans. The idea is nothing less than a national marriage service, which will match everyone to their ideal mate, as determined by science. After all, how many romantic possibilities can you think to meet in your own lifetime? Whereas the NMS database will choose from literally millions of people, who you would never otherwise meet, or indeed have anything in common with. Now sure, you might meet people through friends, family, work, or even for-profit dating sites, but all of these people may well have a hidden agenda, and none of them enjoy the economies of scale possessed by the government.

As good libertarian paternalists, we don't want to ban people from making romantic arrangements privately. Provided each party pays a small tax and writes an essay explaining why they would like to meet this other person, they will be allowed to introduce themselves to each other. However, this plan will of course be subject to revision if there is insufficient take-up of the NMS.

Liberals and libertarian paternalists are of course sincere in their arguments about economic matters, so they no doubt approve heartily when the exact same logic is applied to other domains. I look forward to this idea being championed extensively by Brooks, Thaler, Sunstein, etc.

Marc F Cheney writes:

I think I fail the ideological Turing test here. I can't think of anything that would make everyone happier if they were forced to do it, or even if they chose to do it. Whatever it is, it's certain to bring unhappiness for some people some of the time.

Maybe mandatory vaccinations?

MingoV writes:

The majority of people are religious and believe in some type of afterlife that's better than life on earth. I would require everyone to suicide so that we will achieve maximal median happiness. (Sorry atheists.)

Any other silly questions?

Steve Z writes:

Mandatory use of psychotropic substances, from antidepressants to Schedule-1 narcotics.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

Some people need restrictions, others don't. Notice we apply this to children without concern, because we all know that as a generalization children have poor judgement. Thus, we have arbitrary rules that those under 18--depending on the state and issue--can't do X, those above can. This makes sense because in the limit, 8-year old boys should never have access to guns or alcohol even if they understand at some level what they do.

So, what if we say those with IQs below 85 (an average 13 year old applied to adult standards) can't vote, or drink or buy/sell stocks without a guardian, have sex with an adult, etc? Why would that be wrong in principle?

Obviously, one problem is the disparate impact via the current racial distributions of IQs, but assuming a 'race neutral' IQ test could be derived, is there something making this intolerable to libertarians, and if so, how does one tolerate age restrictions of all sorts?

Philo writes:

One way to understand your challenge is this: I am to suppose that I am a simple, straightforward utilitarian with absolute political power. In that event I wouldn’t bother banning smoking, or any such small-scale stuff. I would be primarily concerned with the political situation, since if a non-utilitarian were to replace me in the dictator’s chair the result would probably be disastrous for the general happiness. I would focus on trying to get the people to establish political institutions that would effectively promote happiness in the long run, as absolute dictatorship would not.

But what specific steps would I take? That’s too tough a question. Building a political structure from scratch is too great a challenge, for me or for anyone else.

Philo writes:

I think it is a good idea to put children under the control of their parents (exceptional cases aside), as our government does; I consider this to be an example of paternalism. And people who are, by due process of law, found to be incompetent (the feeble-minded, the insane) are rightly handled similarly. This is risky, because subject to abuse, and there are awkward borderline cases (as there are with children); still, it seems warranted. The only other form of paternalism that has much plausibility is the prohibition of suicide.

Obviously these examples of paternalism are not *novel*, and I predict that none of your commenters will produce such an example. I believe that in general paternalism does not work for normal adults. It is sometimes pretty clear that someone is acting in a way that harms himself, so that it would be better for him if he voluntarily acted differently. But that is not to say that it would be better for him if he were forbidden by law to act thus, especially if we take a long run view; and there tend to be negative side effects on other people from having and enforcing such a law.

Glen Smith writes:


I guess you don't watch TV? Well, at least totally ignore most advertisements.

prometheefeu writes:

Increase social security or in some other way force increased contributions to a retirement program. Most people don't understand how much money they will need for retirement.

Prohibit the use of non-index funds except for qualified investors. Managed funds have higher fees and lower performance than index funds. No reason to use them. Also, prohibit individual ownership of individual securities (non-mutual funds) except perhaps in small quantities for all but qualified investors. Most people playing the stock market will just loose the money and buying non-listed stocks increases the risk of fraud.

Institute a mandatory exam prior to college acceptance. You can only go to college if you can demonstrate a high IQ. (Perhaps have an escape valve for the few who legitimately don't test well) Higher education is expensive and going to college if you aren't smart enough is useless.

Institute quotas on the sale of unhealthy foods. Won't catch everyone, but it will prevent people living only on high-fat high carb diets.

Ban sexual relationships between employees altogether if there is an unequal power relation. Such an unequal power relationship irremediably viciates consent.

Make a wide range of medical procedures mandatory and ban all cosmetic surgery. Surgery always has risks and it should only be done for serious medical reasons.

I could go on forever, but I have stuff to do today.

Phil writes:

Everyone must learn the basic logic of economics in fourth grade. Supply/demand, price controls, public choice, incentives, etc. It's basic logic, easy for a nine-year-old to grasp.

Anyone past the fourth grade will receive $200 upon passing an exam on the topic.

This will significantly reduce the need for other forms of paternalism.

Michael Keenan writes:

Ban music in political advertisements.

Reversible vasectomies ( for all males at age 13. This way, you only have children when you decide to have children.

Rob writes:

Think bigger!

Heavy taxation to finance happiness studies, human cloning, pleasure wireheading and re-writing the human genome to make agony and suffering biologically impossible.

Once researched, force the enhancements on everyone and clone the resulting superhappy people as often as possible.

Marc F Cheney writes:

@Glen: what's the policy? Ban most advertisements? Which ones? Are there really some ads the existence of which makes everyone unhappy?

I hate ads in general. But sometimes I learn of a product or service I'd like. And those are specific to me, and I don't know which beforehand, because that's the purpose of the ad, to inform me.

Current writes:

It's well known that inequality increases unhappiness. So, I would divide the country into three geographic regions based on income. The rich only get to live with and communicate with the rich, the middle-class only with the middle-class, and so on.

Richard Besserer writes:

Mandate that no media firm (print, broadcast, internet) that engages in interstate commerce may publish the opinion of any person styling himself an authority on any issue of general public policy interest, unless he can prove to my own satisfaction or that of my surrogates that he is indeed an expert with sufficient training or experience to give an informed opinion on the subject. Failure to comply subject to non-trivial fines, precise level to be determined by appropriate regulation.

For example, an economist who has devoted his career to the study of the economic impact of immigration, for example (at a university or at a reputable research institute, say), may be asked to opine at length.

Partisan hacks (of any stripe) with no more verifiable knowledge of the subject than the sort of crank found at any neighbourhood bar will be asked to ride their hobbyhorses back at the bar, where the worst they can do is bore their fellow tipplers, not turn neighbour against neighbour en masse.

caryatis writes:

@Michael Keenan Why just boys? IUDs for girls starting at 13 (or 11, or whenever it becomes physically possible.)

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