Political libertarians & libertarian paternalists Notes for November 8

Main points

The classical case against paternalism was made by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. Mill’s argument was that individuals will be happier if they are allowed to make choices for themselves than they would be if the state were allowed to interfere with their choices. Obviously, the state can’t remain completely out of the picture: it has to protect people from one another. But, Mill argued, it should not interfere with individuals’ self-regarding decisions.

Thaler and Sunstein’s version of paternalism responds pretty directly to Mill. But there are other reasons for being opposed to paternalism. For instance, some people are opposed to paternalism on the grounds that it enhances the power of the state and the state is something to be feared. I’ll call them “political libertarians,” since their libertarianism is based on political considerations: it’s a way of impeding the undesirable expansion of the state’s power. Thaler and Sunstein may show that individuals do a poor job of making choices. But it doesn’t obviously follow either that the state would do a better job or that it would be desirable to give the state the power to do so even if it would do a better job.

Glaeser tries to show that the state would often make worse decisions than individuals do and that, even if this were not so, it is undesirable to give the state the power to “nudge” people for their own good.

What is paternalism?

Paternalism involves interfering with someone’s liberty for that person’s own good. Parents do this to their children all the time, hence the name.

Glaeser’s case against Thaler and Sunstein rests on some sophisticated models of how people might interact. But how do real cases of paternalism work? That is, do we have any evidence that the models fit reality? Glaeser gave four examples to illustrate his point (pp. 148–9). But I didn’t think that any of them fit the definition of paternalism.

  1. I’m sure that some people who wish to regulate homosexuality think that they’re doing so for the sake of the would-be homosexuals. But, really, those policies are driven by moralism, the thought that homosexuality is wrong and so should not be tolerated.
  2. I’m also willing to grant that some slave owners had a paternalistic attitude towards slaves but I don’t think this is what motivated slavery. Nor am I aware of any extensive charitable work to care for the former slaves after emancipation. I would have expected that if paternalistic motivations had been significant.
  3. I’m just boggled by how religious genocide could count as paternalism. Killing people for their own good? Maybe the idea is that you save souls by eliminating infidels. But that’s saving third parties, not the people whose liberty is limited.
  4. Finally, those who think that service to the state is an individual’s highest calling don’t think the state should promote individual welfare; they think they opposite. Anyway, the problem with them lies in their understanding of what’s good for an individual, not their alleged paternalism.

I think he chose these because they’re all illustrations of how the power of the state can be misused. But they aren’t obviously examples of how paternalism leads to misuse.

For examples of real paternalism, we can turn to the source that Glaeser used to define the concept: Gerald Dworkin’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The government requires people to contribute to a pension system (Social Security). It requires motorcyclists to wear helmets. It forbids people from swimming at a public beach when lifeguards are not present. It forbids the sale of various drugs deemed to be ineffective. It forbids the sale of various drugs believed to be harmful. It does not allow consent to certain forms of assault to be a defense against prosecution for that assault.

The civil law does not allow the enforcement of certain kinds of contracts, e.g. for gambling debts. It requires minors to have blood transfusions even if their religious beliefs forbid it. Persons may be civilly committed if they are a danger to themselves.

We debated the first example, Social Security. Daniel maintained that if it were a genuinely paternalistic policy it would do more to provide for financial security during retirement than it does. It’s an interesting point. I wasn’t persuaded but I’m not sure how to reply to it either. So I have to think more and, in the meantime, concede that Daniel got the better of that exchange.

My broader point is that it’s harder to make the case that Glaeser was pressing using these examples. But they’re much more relevant to an assessment of paternalism in general, much less the specific version that Thaler and Sunstein advocate.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2010. It was posted November 15, 2010.
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