The New Paternalism at Cato Unbound

Josh Wright —  7 April 2010

The excellent lead essay is from Glen Whitman, with responses planned from Richard Thaler, Jonathan Klick and Shane Frederick.  It should be a very interesting exchange.  Here is, in my view, one of Whitman’s best paragraphs:

Nevertheless, Sunstein and Thaler (in Nudge) respond to the slippery-slope argument by saying we should “make progress on those [initial proposals], and do whatever it takes to pour sand on the slope.” Saying we should go forward with the initial interventions is akin to saying we should do something because it promises present benefits, while downplaying potential future costs. This is exactly the kind of error in private choice that new paternalists think demands correction. The slope risk must be counted among the costs of the initial intervention.

And the conclusion:

Real people are susceptible to cognitive biases that can lead to poor decisions. It’s only natural to want to help them make better choices.

But no one is immune to bias. Not social scientists, and certainly not policymakers. In translating behavioral science into policy, we may be led astray by the very same cognitive defects we wish to correct. New paternalist policies, and indeed the intellectual framework of new paternalism itself, create a serious risk of slippery slopes toward ever more intrusive paternalism.

Instead of a paternalism-generating framework, I recommend a slope-resisting framework — one that stresses private options and opportunities for self-correction, and that emphasizes important distinctions such as public vs. private and coercive vs. voluntary. That doesn’t mean we will never adopt any new paternalist policies. But if we do, we will hopefully stand a better chance of not slipping down the slope.

Do check out the whole thing and the responses — which appear to be planned for the remainder of this week and early next week.

2 responses to The New Paternalism at Cato Unbound


    There’s a difference between bias, and ‘cognitive biases that can lead to poor decisions’– which, to my reading, is an effort to avoid saying the word ‘stupidity’ that even Orwell would find impressive. Let’s say it again more plainly:

    ‘Real people are susceptible to being stupid. It’s only natural to want to help them make better choices.’

    But you wouldn’t want to say it so plainly, because it often IS right to help people avoid stupid choices. When you have a poor immigrant prone to the stupid choice of taking a home mortgage he can’t afford– yes, we could as a society leave them to pay the stupid price of default and foreclosure. That won’t do much good for the smart neighbor who now has a blighted property on his street. Sometimes it really is better to have a paternalist policy that says no, you can’t make that stupid choice. This example would be one of them.


    Here is the link to the “Paternalist Slopes” paper that Whitman co-authored it with Rizzo (NYU) and references in his essay @ Cato.