Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What if people want governments to regulate them?

This post has arisen from a brief exchange with Scott Sumner about paternalism on his blog, The Money Illusion. Scott’s post expressed views relating to the current Cato Unbound seminar on libertarian paternalism.

In one of my comments I asserted: ‘Most people don’t like others interfering with their lives’. Scott responded:
‘I’ve seen polls that show most people think there should be a law requiring the wearing of seat belts. Indeed I find people I meet usually favor all sorts of restrictions on freedom. On the other hand most people do value a certain amount of freedom for non-utilitarian reasons. So this might help prevent excessive regulation from developing’.

When I read that my initial thought was that Scott was certainly right about seat belts. I have used seat belt regulation as an example when I had written previously (here) about people wanting governments to impose paternalistic regulations to help them cope with their self-control problems. My bottom line was that if people have self-control problems they should seek help from family and friends or professionals, rather than seeking government regulation. I still think that if people want a nanny to regulate their behaviour they should consider hiring one rather than expecting taxpayers to provide one for them.

However, I am having second thoughts about whether people support seat belt regulation because they think they need a nanny to help regulate their own behaviour. When I see roadside signs telling motorists that the police are currently targeting compliance with seat belt regulation I feel amazed that police apparently think that prevention of potential self-harm should have priority over offences that involve a threat to the lives and property of other people. How would supporters of the regulation react to those signs? According to the nanny theory they would see the signs as a reminder to wear their seat belts. But I don’t think many supporters of seat belt regulation would need reminding. Surveys suggest that these days a very high proportion of people in Australia wear a seat belt whenever they are in a car. I suspect that a lot of supporters of seat belt regulation might feel a warm inner glow as they drive past the signs threatening police enforcement because they hope that these signs will influence the behaviour of loved ones whom they consider to be more foolish than themselves.

Perhaps a significant proportion of supporters of seat belt regulation initially supported it to help them to develop the habit of wearing a seat belt. After they developed the habit, however, they probably joined the ranks of the paternalists who support the regulation to influence the behaviour of others. One way or another the regulation seems to have been widely viewed in Australia as a cost-effective way to help people to develop a good habit that might save their lives if they are involved in an accident.

What implications does this example have for the view (which I supported in a recent post) that individual rights are metanormative principles? One point that should be made is that even when there is widespread support for regulation such as this there are likely to be some people who have reason to see it as an interference with their lives. For example, a relative of mine sees the seat belt regulation as unwarranted interference because she has a strong conviction that God will protect her if she is involved in an accident, provided she demonstrates her faith by not wearing a seat belt. Some might scoff, but I can assure readers that this person is of sound mind and has thought deeply about the matter – she can provide examples of people who would have been more seriously injured or killed if they had put their faith in seat belts rather than in God. In my view her rights and those of others with reasoned objections to wearing seat belts should be respected, even if the vast majority of the population see the regulation as beneficial. If libertarian paternalism enables objectors to obtain exemption from such regulation then it is consistent with giving primacy to individual rights and is therefore consistent with the view that rights are metanormative principles.

This does not make me a strong supporter of libertarian paternalism. I think we should be wary of encouraging people to depend more heavily on choice architects within government to nudge them toward better decisions. I will probably write more about that later.

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