Glen Whitman over at Cato Unbound attacks mild paternalism using behavior economics, arguing essentially that they put us on a slippery slope to more intrusive paternalism:

First, it is well-established that people exhibit extremeness aversion: a tendency to avoid positions that are presented as extremes…. The mere presence of an extreme option makes the middle option seem better. The new paternalists, intentionally or not, have exploited this same tendency by presenting their position as a middle-ground between laissez-faire and heavy-handed paternalism.

This would be no great concern, were it not for the tendency of the middle ground to shift over time. A newly adopted middle-ground quickly becomes the status quo. Then a more intrusive option takes center stage, and what used to be the middle-ground becomes one of the bookends….

Sound paranoid? Anti-smoking regulations followed a similar path. Once upon a time, banning smoking on airplanes seemed like the reasonable middle ground. Now that’s the (relatively) laissez-faire position, smoking bans in bars and restaurants are the middle, and full-blown smoking bans have come to pass in some cities.

Behavioral economics is typically used to justify paternalism (“people are irrational, let’s help them”), and the usual counter-argument is a rational agent one (“no they’re not, so you can’t”). It is, to me, a novel framing of the debate to see Whitman attack paternalism on behavioral grounds. Will Gary Becker get a voice in this debate?

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