Nudge and Abortion
By Bryan Caplan
Here’s my ongoing Twitter exchange with Richard Thaler:
@CassSunstein and I say repeatedly in Nudge, the goal is to improve outcomes for people AS JUDGED BY THEMSELVES, not policy maker’s taste
@bryan_caplan I would say most drug laws, all prohibitions of gays, abortion, many immigration laws, …
@R_Thaler Glad to hear about drug laws. But the other laws you name allegedly prevent harm to *others* not harm to self, no?
Still, Thaler’s reply got me thinking about abortion. The main pro-life argument, of course, is that abortion is murder, and murder is harmful to the victim. But on reflection, there is also a simple libertarian paternalist case against abortion.
Key starting point: Parents very rarely regret having children – even initially “unwanted” children. This is not mere status quo bias: Most childless adults eventually regret not having children. As I’ve said about parenthood before, “Buyer’s remorse is rare; non-buyer’s remorse is common.” Implication: Most women who want to terminate their pregnancies would probably change their minds after their babies are born. Most won’t go through the next eighteen years thinking, “I wish I’d gotten that abortion.”
Armed with these facts, an old-fashioned hard paternalist would simply ban most abortions: “You’ll thank us later.” What about the libertarian paternalist? He’d want to achieve the same result – discouraging abortion – with subtler means. Instead of prohibiting abortion he’d want to nudge pregnant women into carrying their fetuses to term. Some candidate nudges:
1. Waiting periods: Abortions must be scheduled at least a week in advance. This gives women time to reconsider their decision, so they don’t abort rashly.
2. An opt-out rule for counseling. The libertarian paternalist could schedule all women who want an abortion for a pre-procedure session with a psychologist – or maybe just volunteer mothers who previously considered abortion. Women who don’t want counseling would have to explicitly refuse to participate.
3. Inconvenient locations: Abortions have to be performed in remote
rural hospitals. Women who definitely want abortions will make the
extra effort, but more ambivalent women will decide to keep their
4. Deny government funding for abortion. If the government thinks that a procedure is generally ill-advised, the first step is to refrain from encouraging it. If people want to pay for it out of their own pocket, they’re still free to do so.
As an actual libertarian, rather than a libertarian paternalist, I support only nudge #4. But it’s hard to see why a staunch libertarian paternalist would object to any of them. (Before you appeal to the slippery slope, remember that Thaler has repeatedly minimized this danger). Despite all the nudges, a woman who really wants an abortion would remain free to get one. The upside, though, is that well-crafted nudges would sharply reduce the number of women who abort children they would have eventually come to love. It’s seems like libertarian paternalists should jump right on board.
Of course, I might just be failing the Ideological Turing Test. So tell me: Why would a libertarian paternalist oppose any of the pro-life nudges I suggest?