Even well-informed people make choices against their own interests. Should the government help them help themselves?by Jim Holt / March 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
When the government tells you that you can’t smoke marijuana or that you must wear a helmet when you ride your motorcycle, even if you happen to like the feeling of the wind in your hair, it is being paternalistic. It is treating you the way a parent treats a child, restricting your liberty for what it deems to be your own good. Paternalistic laws tend to be unpopular. We stick to the principle that, children and the mentally ill apart, an individual is a better judge of what’s good for him than the state is and that people should be free to do what they wish as long as their actions don’t harm others.
But what if it could be shown that even highly competent, well-informed people fail to make choices in their best interest? And what if the government could step in and nudge them in the right direction without interfering with their liberty, or at least not very much? Welcome to the new world of “soft” paternalism. The old “hard” paternalism says: we know what’s best for you, and we’ll force you to do it. By contrast, soft paternalism says: you know what’s best for you, and we’ll help you to do it.
Here’s an example. In some US states, like Missouri and Michigan, compulsive gamblers have the option of putting their names on a blacklist, or “self-exclusion” list, that bars them from casinos. Once on the list, they are banned for life. If they violate the ban, they risk being arrested and having their winnings confiscated. In Missouri, more than 10,000 people have availed themselves of this programme. In Michigan, the first person to sign up for it was, as it happens, also the first to be arrested for violating its terms when he sneaked back to the blackjack tables; he was sentenced to a year’s probation, and the state kept his winnings of $1,223.
The voluntary gambling blacklist is an example of what’s called a self-binding scheme. The classic case is that of Ulysses, who ordered his men to tie him to the mast of his ship so that he could hear the song of the Sirens without being lured to his destruction. As a freely chosen hedge against weakness of the will, self-binding would seem to enlarge individual liberty, not reduce it. So what is there to object to?