Paternalism and Slippery Slopes

Advocates of the “new paternalism” (sometimes also called “libertarian paternalism”) argue that carefully calibrated government interventions can help consumers avoid mistakes caused by their own cognitive biases. In this interesting new article, economist Mario Rizzo and legal scholar Glen Whitman argue that new paternalist policies are vulnerable to slippery slopes that will extend them far beyond the areas where they might be genuinely need to correct consumer errors. Here is the abstract:

The “new paternalism” claims that careful policy interventions can help people make better decisions in terms of their own welfare, with only mild or nonexistent infringement of personal autonomy and choice. This claim to moderation is not sustainable. Applying the insights of the modern literature on slippery slopes to new paternalist policies suggests that such policies are particularly vulnerable to expansion. This is true even if policymakers are fully rational. More importantly, the slippery-slope potential is especially great if policymakers are not fully rational, but instead share the behavioral and cognitive biases attributed to the people their policies are supposed to help. Accepting the new paternalist approach creates a risk of accepting, in the long run, greater restrictions on individual autonomy than have been heretofore acknowledged.

I have myself previously criticized the new paternalism here, here, here, and here. Rizzo and Whitman argue that the danger of slippery slope effects is greater if policymakers themselves suffer from cognitive biases. In this post, I pointed out that the voters who elect the policymakers also suffer from ignorance and cognitive bias, often to a greater extent than the consumers whose biases new paternalist policies are intended to correct. Giving more power to cognitively biased government officials elected by rationally ignorant and cognitively biased voters is likely to exacerbate the effects of cognitive error more than correct it.

Finally, I can’t write a post about slippery slope effects without mentioning Senior Conspirator Eugene Volokh’s excellent “Mechanisms of the Slippery Slope,” which is extensively cited by Rizzo and Whitman. This is my personal favorite among Eugene’s many articles.

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