Nudge: Welfare State Edition
By Bryan Caplan
Simplistic summary of a long debate on paternalism:
Hard Paternalist: Government should force weak human beings to do what’s in their own best interest.
Knee-Jerk Libertarian: No, that’s totalitarian.
Soft Paternalist: Government should nudge weak human beings to do what’s in their own best interest.
Thoughtful Libertarian: You define “nudges” so elastically that you still end up being pretty totalitarian.
Rizzo and Whitman’s Escaping Paternalism exemplifies the Thoughtful Libertarian position; indeed, as I’ve already said, they’ve probably written the best book on paternalism. Only after the Book Club ended, though, did the following compromise position occur to me: Instead of using all means at its disposal to nudge people to do what’s in their own best interest, government should limit itself to using the welfare state to nudge its beneficiaries to do what’s in their own best interest.
Let’s call this “Ward Paternalism” – paternalism limited to people who are dependents of the government. For example, rather than give welfare recipients cash to spend, a Ward Paternalist might give them food stamps instead. Why? To nudge them into buying groceries instead of alcohol.
Key point: Under Ward Paternalism, anyone who doesn’t want to be nudged can simply decline to become dependent on the government. You can spend your own money your own way, no questions asked. If, however, you ask taxpayers for help, the help comes with strings attached to encourage you to get your life in order. He who pays the piper, calls the tune – and why shouldn’t the tune be, “Get your life in order”?
Soft paternalists often call their position “libertarian paternalism.” Ward Paternalism, however, better fits the label, because Ward Paternalism preserves the right of independent adults to do as they please. The restrictions are limited to those who opt in by pleading inability to support themselves.
Why, though, would anyone support Ward Paternalism? Top two reasons:
1. While irresponsibility is not the sole cause of desperation, it is plainly a major cause. The very fact that you’re asking for government help therefore raises serious doubts about your own prudence. And it makes sense to focus paternalistic energy on you.
2. The standard moral constraint to leave others alone does not apply. “Leave me alone, I don’t want your help” has great force. “Help me, but don’t presume to tell me how to live my life” has little.
Before you dismiss it as an eccentric or arrogant position, notice that Ward Paternalism is already enshrined in a wide range of government programs. Governments routinely redistribute in kind; they much prefer to hand out food, health care, schooling, or housing than cash. Much of the reason, no doubt, is that governments want to make sure that children in poor families get food, health care, schooling, and housing even if their parents have other priorities. The rest of the reason, though, is that governments are nudging the adults themselves to prioritize food, health care, schooling, and housing over alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and gambling. The same goes for government pensions; you can’t start spending your retirement when you’re fifty, because the government wants to ensure that you won’t be starving on the streets when you’re seventy. If an independent adult can fairly protest, “It’s my money and I’ll do what I want with it,” why can’t taxpayers just as fairly protest, “It’s our money and you’ll use it as we think best”?
What about the slippery slope? Rizzo and Whitman powerfully argue for its potency. Yet in this case, we face multiple slopes. If we scrupulously avoid the slope where government uses conditional redistribution to dictate our lifestyles, we expose ourselves to the slope where government hands out money like a drunken sailor. And in any case, attaching endless strings to government money is a sneaky route to austerity, a policy program that deserves our full support. If government nudges the people aggressively enough to inspire a massive wave of declarations of independence, so much the better.