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
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?
Plenty, say libertarian critics. They worry that soft paternalism can be a slippery slope to the harder variety, as when campaigns to discourage smoking give way to “sin taxes” and outright bans. But some libertarians have deeper misgivings. What bothers them is the way soft paternalism relies for its justification on the notion that each of us contains multiple selves—and that one of those selves is worth more than the others.
You may naively imagine that you are one person, the same entity from day to day. To David Hume, however, the idea of a permanent “I” was a fiction. According to this way of thinking, the self that inhabits your body today is only similar to, not identical with, the self that is going to inhabit your body tomorrow. And the self that will inhabit your body decades hence? A virtual stranger.
Economists who study human decision-making have found the idea of multiple selves surprisingly useful. Most people, if given a choice today between doing seven hours of irksome work on 1st May 2007 or eight hours on 15th May 2007, opt for the former. When 1st May arrives, however, they will find that their preference has flipped: they now wish to put off the work for a couple of weeks, even at the cost of having to do the extra hour. Why this inconsistency, if the self calling the shots is one and the same?
Further evidence for the fragmented self comes from neuroscience. Brain scans show that the emotional part of the brain, the limbic system, is especially active when the prospect of immediate gratification presents itself. But choice among longer-term options triggers more activity in the “reasoning” part of the brain, located (suitably enough) higher up in the cortex. Now suppose you’re tempted by a diet-violating chocolate bar. Which part of your brain gets to be the decider—the short-sighted emotional part or the far-sighted reasoning part? There may be no built-in hierarchy here, just two autonomous brain modules in competition. That is why you might find yourself eating the chocolate even while knowing it’s bad for you.
The short-run self cares only about the present. It is happy to indulge today and offload the costs on to future selves. For example, recent studies show that teenage smokers do not underestimate the risk of getting lung cancer as an adult (if anything, they tend to overestimate it); they simply don’t mind making the future self suffer for the pleasure of the moment. The long-run self may deplore this behaviour, but its prudent resolutions are ignored. Yet it can enforce its will indirectly by shaping the environment to constrain some short-run selves from exploiting others—by, say, putting a time-lock on the refrigerator.
But why should the government side with your prudent long-run self against your hedonistic short-run selves? It is not good to be profligate, lazy and obese, but nor is it good to be a miser, a workaholic or an anorexic.
If the goal is to promote freedom, though, there is an interesting argument favouring the long-run self. A distinctive quality of humans, as the third earl of Shaftesbury observed three centuries ago, is that we do not simply have desires; we also have feelings about our desires. Take the unhappy heroin addict: he gives himself an injection because he desires the drug, but he also has a desire to be rid of this desire. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt has given such “second-order” desires a central role in his analysis of free will: we act freely, he submits, when we act on a desire that we actually desire to have, one that we endorse as our own. Beings that do not reflect on the desirability of their desires—like animals and, perhaps, our short-run selves—are what Frankfurt calls “wantons.”
People have fashioned a wide range of techniques for keeping their inner wantons under control—like buying a small tub of ice cream instead of the more economical jumbo-size tub because they know they would end up consuming the latter in one sitting. So why can’t soft paternalism be left to the private sector? The problem is that private self-binding schemes are easily subverted when someone can make a buck off your weakness. One Michigan man who signed up for a casino’s self-blacklisting programme found the owners all too accommodating when he had a change of heart. “Within half an hour, I was back in,” he said.
The general problem, as put by the political theorist Jon Elster, is this: For a given uphill goal and a given strength of will, does there exist a path, however circuitous, that will get you to the top of the hill? By adding a new path here and there, state soft paternalism makes it more likely that the answer will be yes. A longer version of this article first appeared in the “New York Times Magazine”