By Bryan Caplan
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.