I’m now ready to wrap up my side of the Escaping Paternalism Book Club; Rizzo and Whitman will have the last word, coming soon.  Hope you enjoyed the ride!

Response to final questions:

Knut Heen:

When the unit of measurement is cash, discounting is standard practice and non-controversial.

When the unit of measurement is utils, discounting is somehow highly controversial.

This is a surprisingly complex issue, but I think I handle it pretty well here.


(This question is for anyone)

What argument would it take, or what evidence would you have to see, to conclude that paternalism is justified, at least to some extent?

As usual, I appeal to Mike Huemer’s libertarian presumption.  If the social benefits of paternalism substantially exceed their social cost (by a factor of say 5), then paternalism is justified.  My case for autonomy closely parallels my case for pacifism, which goes like this:

1. The immediate costs of war are clearly awful.  Most wars lead to massive loss of life and wealth on at least one side.  If you use a standard value of life of $5M, every 200,000 deaths is equivalent to a trillion dollars of damage.

2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.  Some wars – most obviously the Napoleonic Wars and World War II – at least arguably deserve credit for decades of subsequent peace.  But many other wars – like the French Revolution and World War I – just sowed the seeds for new and greater horrors.  You could say, “Fine, let’s only fight wars with big long-run benefits.”  In practice, however, it’s very difficult to predict a war’s long-run consequences.  One of the great lessons of Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment is that foreign policy experts are much more certain of their predictions than they have any right to be.

3. For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.  I call this “the principle of mild deontology.”  Almost everyone thinks it’s wrong to murder a random person and use his organs to save the lives of five other people.  For a war to be morally justified, then, its (innocent lives saved/innocent lives lost) ratio would have to exceed 5:1.  (I personally think that a much higher ratio is morally required, but I don’t need that assumption to make my case).

Inverting this: If the costs of paternalism are low, and the long-benefits are large and fairly certain, paternalism is justified.  Otherwise, not.  In the real world, of course, all three conditions rarely hold, especially for adults.  And as Rizzo and Whitman emphasize, when we calculate costs and benefits, we should always include the burden paternalism imposes on responsible people, as well as the dysfunctionality of actually-existing paternalist policy.

Last, let me reply to Rizzo and Whitman on objective welfare, point-by-point:

We should emphasize that Bryan’s position was not our primary target in the book.  Many behavioral paternalists (i.e., new-school paternalists) explicitly disavow the notion of objective welfare, even if they sometimes unwittingly slip into that frame of mind.  Like most economists, behavioral paternalists embrace the subjectivism of preferences and personal values.  We have met them on that playing field.

Do behavioral paternalism “sometimes unwittingly slip” into that frame of mind?  Or do they habitually do so?  RW’s exegesis of this literature convinces me of the latter.

By contrast, although Bryan is not a paternalist, he shares the old-school paternalists’ fundamental value judgment:  that some people’s preferences are just wrong, and they would be better off if corrected.  This is a philosophical position we do not share, so perhaps we should simply agree to disagree.

You may not share this philosophical position explicitly.  But if you monitor your daily thinking, how consistently do you avoid it?  If a bright child stubbornly insisted that he wanted to play with a loaded gun after you thoroughly warned him of the risks, would you really deny that you make him better off by giving him what he needs instead of what he wants?

Furthermore, what if we interpreted “better off” as “having a happier long-run emotional state?”  This hardly seems like an abuse of the English language.  Would you still deny that some people “would be better off if corrected”?

However, Bryan also suggests that we, too, have accepted some notion of objective welfare.  In response to a passage in the book where we concede – for the sake of argument – that we could indulge our intuition in certain very extreme cases that people are acting irrationally, Bryan responds:  “I agree that ‘intuition’ (or just ‘common-sense’) says this.  The reason, though, is that ‘well-considered well-being’ is a thinly-veiled version of objective well-being.  The morbidly obese are plainly acting in accordance with their own preferences, but they are acting contrary to their own long-run happiness.”

On this point, we strongly beg to differ.  Well-considered well-being is not just thinly veiled objective well-being.

Logically, these are different concepts.  But in practice I say that virtually everyone – Rizzo and Whitman included – uses “well-considered well-being” as a place-holder for “objective well-being.”

We dispute the notion that anyone who thinks carefully enough will choose Bryan’s personal values!  On this front, the behavioral paternalists are right:  the appropriate standard of well-being is the one you would impose on yourself.  If the morbidly obese person looks at his life and genuinely concludes, “You know, all thing considered, this is the life for me,” we, as economists, have no objective basis for saying otherwise.  If there are legitimate grounds for deeming this person irrational and possibly in need of help, it’s because his behavior is making him worse off from his own perspective.

Perhaps we “as economists” have no objective basis for condemning a life of morbid obesity.  But how about as philosophers?  As human beings?

We would also observe that the appeal to “common sense” is potentially tyrannical – not in Bryan’s hands, but in the hands of those who don’t share his libertarian value commitments.

Of course.  And as I said, acknowledging the existence of China is potentially tyrannical, too.  As long as we deny that China exists, it makes no sense to impose trade barriers on China.  But the wise course is not to deny the obvious, but to acknowledge the obvious, then argue for the controversial.

Common sense is often shorthand for “what we happen to like.”  Laden with social desirability bias, common sense can become a cudgel for imposing one’s own values on others.  Which is not to say we should never apply common sense; again, we might be willing to indulge that intuition in some extreme cases.  But it is playing with fire, so to speak.

Most of this, too, is common sense.  “People are quick to define their personal tastes as common sense” is common sense!  But that doesn’t mean we should reserve intuition for “extreme cases”; it means we should carefully weigh intuitions.  Appeals to common sense underlie all science, so we might as well embrace it.

To be very clear, we don’t dispute the existence of objective standards.  In principle, we can objectively define the choices that will maximize health, or lifespan, or long-term financial wealth.  But how should those things be weighed against other values, such as spontaneity, indulgence, and hedonic pleasure?  That is a matter of personal preferences and values.

Again, this sounds good, but I doubt Rizzo and Whitman even try to consistently apply it.  If a precocious child used this framework to defend his choice to play with a loaded gun, RW would still veto him for his own good.  And wisely so.