Bryan Caplan  

Why No Slippery Slope? Because Paternalists Start at the Bottom

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If libertarian paternalism is a slippery slope, why aren't we sliding?  Don Boudreaux provides the obvious answer: Because almost all paternalism is coercive from the get-go:
One reason why the empirical record isn't more full of nudges turning into diktats is that government typically issues diktats from the get-go.  We Americans were commanded, without any prior "nudging," to use low-flow faucets.  We were commanded, without prior "nudging," not to use marijuana.  We were commanded, without prior "nudging," to set aside a portion of our earnings into Social Security.  Ditto, of course, for countless other aspects of our lives - including being commanded by Obamacare, without prior "nudging," to buy health insurance as designed by government officials.

If the arrogant busybodies who itch to practice social engineering are somehow persuaded to launch more of their engineering projects with "nudges" rather than with diktats, any significant failure of those "nudges" to produce the desired socially engineered outcomes will inevitably be taken as proof that those "nudges" should be turned into commands.

In short, the nanny state is a Tiger Mom: Do it voluntarily, or else.



COMMENTS (8 to date)
Steve Reilly writes:

The second paragraph doesn't really follow from the first, though, does it? Maybe he's right, or maybe nudging could replace at least some of those diktats.

Don Boudreaux writes:

Mr. Reilly:

You are correct. I should have been more careful in writing that second paragraph. I should there have more clearly made the point that a key problem is that nudging theory might make people more willing to have government act in a nanny-state fashion. If nudging theory promotes a greater acceptance of nanny-statism - and I'm quite sure that's what its advocates want - then it might turn out that all of that additional nanny-statism is only ever done with nudges. But more plausible to me is the scenario that this greater acceptance of nanny-statism will create its own greater demand actually to achieve the stated goals of the nanny-staters - and what began as nudging ends up as diktats.

The very mindset of social engineering strikes me as one held disproportionately by people who are overly impressed with their own wisdom and insight about how other people should live their lives. If nudging opens the door wider to social engineering, I'm afraid that it will let in not just a greater ability to nudge, but a greater willingness and push to dictate.

Handle writes:

Some of the problem is defining what distinguishes a 'nudge' from a command. How are nudge social policies enforced if not coercively. By other nudges? The 'Opt-Out vs. Out-In' example for 401K saving or Overdraft Protection ('Regulation E') is famous, but the nudge for the little people is enforced by an actual regulation on companies, the violation of which is penalized by punishments which are ... coercive. So people have choice, and the default non-choice is considered the wiser course of action for people to help them avoid getting into trouble / exploited, but if the presumed effect on behavior is important enough to warrant normal coercive law regulating companies, then it's important to warrant normal law on individuals (prohibiting the bad option altogether) if the behavioral patterns aren't observed to change sufficiently in response to the 'nudge'.

The exemplar of a nudge is supposed to be the choice architecture of putting the fatty, unhealthy foods on the higher shelf in a cafeteria. We're not forbidding you to get that stuff, just adding a tiny, non-financial, sub-coercive penalty to you getting it - shifting the intercept of your budget line along the fatty-food-axis and adjusting the utility-maximizing point for most people to a place with less fatty-food. So, equivalent to an excise tax. Only people who 'really want it' will pay the tax, but everyone else will be deterred, like with smoking, alcohol, etc.

Part of the advertised insight is that things that are tempting and unhealthy are so pleasurable as to become something akin to 'addictive'. A person who is in a 'low-fat-desire' state, will, upon trying the crack-potency of that cupcake, adjust his personal utility curve to value it more and more - much to his (and the taxpayer's through obamacare) detriments. If excise-taxes are placed on addictive substances, then you will probably deter most people from ever getting on the path of a vicious cycle.

Even assuming this nudge is genuinely effective (I doubt it) the question becomes, "Honestly, how many social policy situations lend themselves to food-on-a-higher-shelf 'solutions'?"

It seems that most nudges will not be 'choice architecture' in any way different from small financial penalties and excise taxes we deem 'non-coercive.' Even under Boudreaux's example of buying insurance under Obamacare, the penalty is fairly minor compared to the perceived net benefit of having free catastrophic care (which everyone in the U.S. can get, more or less, in Emergency Rooms) without paying premiums. The designers of the bill would definitely characterize it as having a 'nudge' degree of magnitude.

But, again, there is a pretty significant coercive law on the consequences of not paying taxes that stands behind that nudge.

Tom West writes:

Since time and time again, the public has shown themselves unwilling to see people suffer even as a result of their own bad decisions, I think Mr. Boudreaux is missing a vital element behind the support for these coercive measures:

Better they pay (or behave), than we pay.

The third option: let them make their own decision and pay for the consequences, hasn't been seriously on the table since society became wealthy enough to alleviate (to at least some degree) the consequences for bad decision making (without beggaring ourselves).

And to be honest, that tendency has been universal enough among wealthy nations that I think that we can take that as a given. Failing to feel the obligation of our fellow citizen seems to be an artifact of simply not being wealthy enough to be able to help the less fortunate (without seriously impacting our standard of living).

(Note our wealth is not large enough to seriously help the entire world without pain to ourselves, so magically, most of us don't feel anything more than a nominal responsibility to help the entire world.)

Rob writes:
Since time and time again, the public has shown themselves unwilling to see people suffer even as a result of their own bad decisions

This is simply wrong. The public has no qualms both seeing and making people suffer as long as it can be rationalized as somehow "necessary" or "deserved". Just look at the right-to-die debates.

Don't want to suffer through agony or a slow, debilitating period of increasing physical and mental entropy? Well, too bad for you, because we're gonna make you. Only for your own good, of course...

"Protecting people from themselves" is not about protecting people.

ThomasH writes:

I don't think the examples given are good ones of "paternalism." The justification for low water volume toilets is not that people were making bad decisions about purchasing large-volume toilets vis s vis paying water bills, but that unnecessary use of drinking water was imposing costs on other water and sewage users. The cost benefit calculation may be right or wrong but it was not "paternalism." Ditto the individual ACA mandate. Social Security does not work either because it's just a transfer payment financed by taxes not a for-your-own-good forced savings plan. Marijuana use may be a better example.

Tom West writes:

Don't want to suffer through agony or a slow, debilitating period of increasing physical and mental entropy? Well, too bad for you, because we're gonna make you. Only for your own good, of course...

I suspect most of the people who are against "right-to-die" laws have their position because they believe that it decreases the amount of suffering they see in their fellow citizens.

I believe they're wrong. But I think their motivation is as I stated.

Also, the word "see" is important. As far as wanting to relieve suffering, out-of-sight is definitely out-of-mind.

ThomasH writes:

I have trouble with the idea of with the idea of "nanny-state" as a coherent attitude. Aside from most political issues NOT being about whether and how much coercion is justified to compel a person to behave in his own best interest, I don't recognize any group of people who favor "nanny-statism" across a wide range of issues. Restrictions on the use of "recreational" drugs, for example, and on consumption of "unhealthy" food are generally championed by different people.

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