The Rise of New Paternalism

 
 
April 06, 2010

A good essay in Cato Unbound on new paternalism deserves a read.  Whitman argues that a slippery slope beginning with soft paternalism should be a real concern—especially "if policymakers exhibit the same cognitive biases attributed to the people they're trying to help."  An excerpt:

New paternalists often present their position as striking a reasonable middle ground between rigid anti-paternalism on the one hand and intrusive "hard" paternalism on the other. But as the list of policies above suggests, this claim to moderation is difficult to sustain.

My claim (along with my frequent coauthor, Mario Rizzo) is that the new paternalism carries a serious risk of expansion. Following its policy recommendations places us on a slippery slope from soft paternalism to hard. This would be true even if policymakers - including legislators, judges, bureaucrats, and voters - were completely rational. But the danger is especially great if policymakers exhibit the same cognitive biases attributed to the people they're trying to help.

The slippery slope is not, of course, the only argument against new paternalism. The slippery slope is not intended as a solo knock-out argument against any and all new-paternalist policies. In some cases, their benefits might be high enough to justify their costs. The key point is that the slippery slope risk must be counted among the relevant costs.

Unfortunately, the very manner in which the new paternalism paradigm has been advanced makes it likely that risk will be ignored.

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