Jonathan B. Wight
Mark White made an excellent post below
(“Nudge meets long-term health care”) that essentially boils down to this: “Do gooders should not be manipulating the
choices of unsuspecting citizens.” Let
me offer three rejoinders. Mark noted:
“What is or is not in a person’s
interests is known only to that person, and cannot be judged by anyone else. If
someone expresses dissatisfaction or regret after her choices, then she is free
to seek help, and others are free to offer help to her. But it is insulting for
someone else to impute irrationality to her choices, and then follow up with
any type of manipulation to “guide” her to the “right” ones. This new style of
paternalism is no less threatening to liberty for its subtlety—it’s worse.”
Mark essentially argues that individual autonomy is violated when
government paternalists structure a choice.
But doesn’t every choice have to be structured? It’s not a question of “structure” or “don’t
structure.” If paternalism is not being
used to structure a choice other options will be used. These include: random selection of choices manipulation for some purpose other than paternalism (e.g., special interests seeking
There is nothing to indicate that a
paternalistic structuring of choices would be judged (by that individual
himself or herself) to be any worse than any other form of structuring.
Second, Mark may be implying that something anti-democratic is going
on. It’s reassuring to think that
everyone, all the time, is fully engaged as an autonomous personal decision-maker. But in a Republic, we elect representatives to
make many decisions for us. Some of
those decisions relate to framing our choices in a paternalistic way. That’s not anti-democratic as long as there is
transparency, good information flows, and so.
In the “enrollment” debate Mark
specifically mentioned, the provision he objects to is not being hidden under a
rug: it’s out there for all to debate (as Mark is doing). There is transparency, there is accountability.
I don’t see anything wrong with
structuring a health care or retirement system in a way that’s designed to
encourage people to take care of their own health or retirement needs. In saying this I am explicitly assuming that
competition and good information exists.
Mark’s concerns are more valid in say, Japan, where savers were
basically forced to use the government postal saving system. The Japanese over-saved and had few options. Likewise now in China, the under-valued
exchange rate is forcing the Chinese people to over-save. Making paternalistic choices is far more
acceptable when people who are interested and care enough have real options,
when there is transparency, and when there is accountability through elections.
3. From a virtue-ethics
perspective, Mark’s argument is a good one—that we should learn and progress on
our own, through making mistakes. Depriving
someone of mistakes doesn’t make that person better off. But this argument only works so far. People are malleable. Even Adam Smith noted the need for
paternalism, to inculcate good habits in people. In TMS he wrote:
“The civil magistrate is entrusted
with … promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth, by establishing good
discipline, and by discouraging every sort of vice and impropriety; he may
prescribe rules, therefore, which not only prohibit mutual injuries among
fellow-citizens, but command mutual good offices to a certain degree.” (p. 81, Glasgow edition).
In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith
advocated limiting paper bank notes issues to £5 and larger, which would limit
their circulation to wealthier merchants.
Such paternalism would keep the poor from suffering “a very great
calamity” in the case of bank failure. Paternalism
must be exercised with “propriety and judgment,” and should not be pushed to
the point that it is “destructive of liberty.” But to ignore the need for paternalism
exposes the society to “many gross disorders and shocking enormities.”
In considering paternalism, it is
necessary to weigh the degree of transparency, accountability, and competition
in the system. If these are present,
some paternalistic structuring may be acceptable—even desirable.