Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Freedom Quote, Rise of Soft Paternalism, Libertarian Response?

Unless men are free to be vicious they cannot be virtuous.
by Frank Meyer, "In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Manifesto"

Much has been made of freedom and liberty in this country. It's a neverending source of inspiration to both real and imaginary politics.

The struggle over privacy, freedom, choice, and liberty is the most important political question we face. It's more important than the War on Whatever, more important than the level of taxation, more important than the state of the electoral college or immigration reform. The only thing it's not more important than is the survival of the environment. I.e., the health of the planet itself, without which everyone slowly dies, which is, perhaps, the ultimate in privacy, since the government can no longer badger, guide, legislate to, or tax you.

In reading the cover story from the April 6th Economist magazine, you can see this questions of privacy, freedom, choice, and liberty in action.

The Rise of Soft Paternalism

April 6th, Economist

Liberals sometimes dream of a night-watchman state, securing property and person, but no more. They fret that societies have instead submitted to the nanny state, a protective but intrusive matriarch, coddling citizens for their own good. Economists, with their strong faith in rationality and liberty, have tended to agree. As many decisions as possible should be left in the individual's lap, because no one knows your interests better than you do. Most of us have gained from this freedom.

But a new breed of policy wonk is having second thoughts. On some of the biggest decisions in their lives, people succumb to inertia, ignorance or irresolution. Their private failings—obesity, smoking, boozing, profligacy—are now big political questions. And the wonks think they have an ingenious new answer—a guiding but not illiberal state.What they propose is “soft paternalism”.

Thanks to years of patient observation of people's behaviour, they have come to understand your weaknesses and blindspots better than you might know them yourself. Now they hope to turn them to your advantage. They are paternalists, because they want to help you make the choices you would make for yourself—if only you had the strength of will and the sharpness of mind. But unlike “hard” paternalists, who ban some things and mandate others, the softer kind aim only to skew your decisions, without infringing greatly on your freedom of choice. Technocrats, itching to perfect society, find it irresistible. What should the supposed beneficiaries think?

Most people would accept that a healthy diet is hard to achieve, financial matters are confusing and cigarettes kill too many. The state is tempted to step in, not only because of the harm that smokers, lushes, spendthrifts and gluttons may do to others, but because of the harm they are doing to themselves. In Scotland last month the government banned smoking in offices, restaurants and pubs. In Massachusetts, the state legislature has passed a bill requiring everyone who can afford to buy health insurance to do so, on pain of higher taxes.

This is hard paternalism. The softer sort is about nudging people to do things that are in their best interests. The purest form involves setting up systems for sinners to reform themselves: in Missouri for instance, some 10,000 compulsive gamblers have banned themselves from riverboat casinos; if they succumb to their habit (and are caught) they face tough punishments. In most cases, though, soft paternalism means the government giving people a choice, but skewing the choice towards the one their better selves would like to make.

For instance, in many countries plenty of workers fail to enrol in pension schemes and suffer as a result. The reason is not that they have decided against joining, but that they haven't decided at all—and enrolling is cumbersome. So why not make enrolling in the scheme the default option, still leaving them the choice to opt out? Studies have shown this can nearly double the enrolment rate. Lord Turner, head of Britain's Pensions Commission, is the latest soft paternalist to recommend such a scheme

Soft paternalists also want to give people more room to rethink “hot and hasty” decisions. They favour cooling-off periods before big decisions, such as marriage, divorce or even buying cigarettes. Some of them toy with elaborate “sin licences”, which would entitle the holder to buy cigarettes, alcohol or even perhaps fatty foods, but only at times and in amounts the licenceholder himself signed up to in advance.

If people want this kind of customised paternalism, why can't the market, in the shape of rehab clinics and personal trainers, provide it? Soft paternalists argue that, without the power of the state behind such schemes, they will often break down: the sovereign consumer can always veto his own decisions. He can fire his personal trainer or check out of the clinic. Long before the government took it upon itself to ban opium from general sale, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a Romantic poet and drug addict, used to hire porters to bar his entry to apothecaries. But he would later threaten to have them arrested if they did not let him pass.

Soft paternalism has much in its favour. First, it is certainly better than hard paternalism. Second, a government has to provide information to citizens in order for them to make rational decisions on everything from smoking to breastfeeding to organ donation. Even a government reluctant to second-guess its citizens ends up advising them in one way or another. What people decide they want is often a product of the way a choice is framed for them—they take the first thing on the menu, or a bit of everything. Even a truly liberal government would find itself shaping the wishes and choices to which it earnestly wants to defer. It's surely better to lure people into pension schemes than out of them.

Yet from the point of view of liberty, there is a serious danger of overreach, and therefore grounds for caution. Politicians, after all, are hardly strangers to the art of framing the public's choices and rigging its decisions for partisan ends. And what is to stop lobbyists, axe-grinders and busybodies of all kinds hijacking the whole effort? There is, admittedly, a safety valve. People remain free to reject the choices soft paternalism tries to guide them into—that is what is distinctive about it. But though people will still have this freedom, most won't bother to use it—that is what makes soft paternalism work. For all its potential, and its advantage over paternalism of the hard sort, this is a tool that transfers power from the individual to the state, which only sometimes knows best.

Its champions will say that soft paternalism should only be used for ends that are unarguably good: on the side of sobriety, prudence and restraint. But private virtues such as these are as likely to wither as to flourish when public bodies take charge of them. And life would be duller if every reckless spirit could outsource self-discipline to the state. Had the government deprived Coleridge of opium, he might have been happier. Then again, there might have been no “Kubla Khan”.

So, the challenge to Americans, many of which believe that the government has "no business telling us how to live", is what to do about the rise of soft paternalism.

If defaults are changed to where you have to opt out, instead of opting in, then many things would indeed go much better. Retirement savings, for example, which is something Americans seem to have some problems with, would probably be the first thing that many people would choose to make opt out instead of opt in.

Waiting periods can affect sales and decisions. If things like divorce, gun-purchases, medical procedures, cigarette purchases, and whatever other vice the government and/or society wants to see reduced had waiting periods, then this too would most likely be widely tolerated. We already tolerate the legislation of waiting periods for many things in the US. Why not more?

At first, this seems to fly in the face of libertarianism, which stresses that allowing people to make their own choices, even if they are bad ones, is better than someone else making the choice for you, even if that someone else is making a very good choice for you.

However, Libertarianism works well only when everyone chooses within a framework of responsible freedom. Libertarianism works exceedingly well for responsible people who tend to be altruistic, well-educated, and believe - either consciously or unconsciously - in a moral or ethical framework behind and beneath law and choice.

This is why I both vote libertarian, am proud to be libertarian, and yet also concede how improbable it is for more than perhaps a small fraction of the population to ever be truly able to embrace what is, at heart, a very disciplined and responsible form of government. Like any ideal, the reflection in reality is somewhat fractured, faceted, or corrupted. The (alleged) fiscal conservatism of the Republicans, the dedication to doing the right thing by the environment of the Greens, the compassion for equality of the Democrats - all these things are facets of Libertarianism, scattered amongst parties that have other fatal flaws that render them incapable of winning a libertarian vote. Bringing all these ideas together under the banner of one party happened in 1972, but no one seemed to notice.

Libertarianism is abused and society is disserved by people who make selfish short-sighted choices, who then are left to die in a ditch due to accident or addiction or other repercussions of their choices.

The Democrat would try to save the person in the ditch. A Republican would punish them. A Green might secretly rejoice in the darwinian reduction of population that irresponsible behaviour produces from time to time. It takes courage to confront the underlying reasons for irresponsibility before individual choices lead to social loss.

In a morally relativistic society, how often do you actually hear someone making a value judgement about the choices of another person? It's quite rare.

It also takes courage to let the person continue to make those choices and allow them to suffer the consequences. This is never fun when the consequences are negative.

So, the question is:

Is soft paternalism a preservation of the ideals of Libertarianism, or is it a perversion of those ideals?

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