Thursday, August 28, 2008

Do gaps between wanting and liking explain government paternalism?

At the end of my last post I raised the question of whether gaps between wanting an liking - craving things that bring little or no happiness once we have them - provides grounds for government paternalism. I have previously referred to an article in which Glen Whitman discusses various ways in which people deal with self-control problems without paternalistic interventions (here). In an article discussing government paternalism, Edward Glaeser provides some good reasons why flaws in decision-making should make us more, not less, wary about trusting governments (‘Paternalism and psychology’, Regulation, Summer 2006). For example: “If incentives to make good decisions increase the quality of decision-making, then ... private decisions should be better than public decisions: government decision-makers do not care as much about the individual’s well-being as the individual himself does” (34).

As well as suggesting that gaps between wanting and liking could possibly justify paternalistic interventions by government , Colin Camerer has suggested (here) that the existence of such gaps might help to explain paternalistic interventions that are already in place. An obvious example is prohibition of addictive drugs. Sin taxes on tobacco and alcohol could have similar motivations, but these taxes have also been promoted on other grounds e.g. correcting externalities and raising revenue. The provision of “cooling off” periods for consumer purchases can be explained in terms of allowing time for consumers to re-consider purchases they have made in a “hot” emotional state. When restrictions are imposed on people who are considered to be mentally incompetent, one of the reasons may have to do with impairment of the brain circuitry that restrains impulsive actions. Regulations to protect children and young adults may also be motivated partly by beliefs about the development of the brain circuitry that controls impulsive actions.

Defenders of liberty have conventionally argued, along with J.S. Mill, that children should be protected: “Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury” (“On Liberty”, 1859). There is a “slippery slope” in this argument, however, as is evident in the fact that Mill goes on to argue that despotism is a legitimate mode of government “in dealing with barbarians” provided the objective is “their improvement”.

I find it easier to understand how Mill could justify extension of paternalism to protect “barbarians” than to explain why adults in democracies would vote in favour of paternalistic policies to restrict their own freedom. Paternalism, by definition, is about treating people like children. Do a majority of adults in democratic countries really want to be treated like children?

My guess that if adults were asked that question there would not be many who would say that they do want to be treated as children. But a lot of adults seem to lack sufficient confidence in their own capacity to make the right decisions and stick by them. This applies in a wide range of areas from personal safety e.g. wearing seat belts to financial security e.g. investing in superannuation. Rather than asking family and friends to help them learn how to cope with their emotional impulses, or to seek professional help, a lot of people have come to want governments to regulate everyone’s behavior.


Coralie said...

Great article :) I believe that the reason so many adults want to live under a paternalistic government is a lack of trust. A man trusts himself to make the right decision, but he does not trust his neighbor to make the right decision as well, so he chooses to enforce his will upon his neighbor through the use of government force. He doesn't take the time to consider that his neighbor may, in fact, go on to make the right choice, nor that since different people have different wants and needs, the "right" choice varies from person to person.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Coralie. I think that is a good point.

A lot of people seem keen to enlist the help of the government to protect relatives and friends whom they consider might be vulnerable to impulsive behavior.