Slippery slopes Notes for October 23

Main points

We talked about the two types of objection to libertarian paternalism in the Whitman and Rizzo article, in Part II and Part III respectively.

As Professor Brown pointed out, the type of objection in Part II grants the psychological observations about bounded rationality. Its point is that policy makers are also boundedly rational and so are vulnerable to sliding down slippery slopes even when there may be no logical reason to do so.

The point in Part III reinstates the assumption that people are rational in the way that economists typically assume they are. For instance, if we correct for people’s bad decisions, they simply put less effort into learning. So we wind up pretty much where we started.

A bunch of points

This is too rushed to be comprehensive or thorough. It’s more a record of some points that I wrote down.

Derek pointed out a way that Sunstein and Thaler’s thesis that some nudges are inevitable is confirmed. The point of avoiding slippery slopes is to prevent people in the future from making bad decisions. By avoiding a slippery slope, we’re framing the decisions of future people. That’s paternalism towards the future. So some framing or paternalism is inevitable, just as Sunstein and Thaler said.

I waved my hands in the air about where the slope is. If how we frame a decision is arbitrary, then the slide from one way of framing it to another can’t be worse: it’s just another arbitrary point, I said. Natalie responded very effectively. She said that the line they hope to draw is between paternalistic and non-paternalistic government behavior. The slope starts whenever we cross that line, even if we did so under the guise of libertarian paternalism. Good point!

I noted that the abstract form of one of the slippery slope arguments cuts both ways. It’s true that paternalistic interventions frame our choices: what seemed like an extreme kind of paternalism seems less extreme after we have instituted a less extreme kind. If we keep on pushing out the boundary of what is extreme, we wind up with an objectionably paternalistic state. But there’s a similar argument about liberty: allowing liberty in one area, such as handgun possession, can make an otherwise extreme sounding kind of liberty, such as the librty of owning an assault rifle, appear less extreme. If we keep on pushing out the boundary of what is extreme, we wind up with an objectionably minimal state. In other words, be careful when deploying these arguments.

There was a lot of other good stuff, but I failed to make note of it all. Thanks for a great discussion!

Wait, there’s more!

Sunstein and Thaler’s replies are directed towards a particular article. Many of the basic points are the same. But just skimming the other one, it looks a bit more direct to me. Plus, there are long and short versions!

The articles is “Paternalism and Psychology” by Edward Glaeser. It was published in the University of Chicago Law Review (long) and Regulation, a publication of the CATO Institute (short).

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-Being, PPE 160, Fall 2008. It was posted October 23, 2008.
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