Paternalism and Psychology: If Individuals' Ability to Make Rational Decisions Is Limited, Wouldn't Their Ability to Make Political Decisions Also Be Limited?

By Glaeser, Edward L. | Regulation, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Paternalism and Psychology: If Individuals' Ability to Make Rational Decisions Is Limited, Wouldn't Their Ability to Make Political Decisions Also Be Limited?


Glaeser, Edward L., Regulation


An increasingly large body of evidence on bounded rationality has led many scholars to question economics' traditional hostility toward paternalism. After all, if individuals have so many cognitive difficulties, then it is surely possible that government intervention can improve welfare.

As Christine Jolls, Cass Sunstein, and Richard Thaler write in a 1998 Stanford Law Review article, "bounded rationality pushes toward a sort of anti-antipaternalism--a skepticism about antipaternalism, but not an affirmative defense of paternalism." Even if the authors stop short of endorsing traditional hard paternalism, such as sin taxes and prohibitions, Jolls, Sunstein, and Thaler are enthusiastic about "soft" or "libertarian" paternalism, where the government engages in "debiasing"--changing default rules and other policies that will change behavior without limiting choice.

But flaws in human cognition should make us more, not less, wary about trusting government decisionmaking. After all, if humans make mistakes in market transactions, then they will make at least as many mistakes in electing representatives, and those representatives will likely make mistakes when policymaking.

While I generally share Jolls, Sunstein, and Thaler's view that soft paternalism is less damaging than hard paternalism and that in many cases some form of paternalism is inevitable, I respectfully disagree with their view that this type of paternalism "should be acceptable to even the most ardent libertarian." Soft paternalism is neither innocuous nor obviously benign.

Hard paternalism in the form of tax rates or bans is easy to monitor and control; soft paternalism is not. Soft paternalism often relies on stigmatizing behavior like smoking, drinking, or homosexuality, and that can lead (and has led) to dislike or hatred of individuals who continue to engage in the disapproved activities. Moreover, soft paternalism will surely increase support for hard paternalism, as it seems to have done in the case of cigarettes.

Finally, persuasion lies at the heart of much of soft paternalism. It is not obvious that we want governments to become more adept at persuading voters or for governments to invest in infrastructure that will support persuasion. Governments have a strong incentive to abuse any persuasion-related infrastructure and use it for their own interests, mostly keeping themselves in power.

THE SUPPLY OF ERROR

Psychology and social science have an enormously rich tradition of showing that individuals are heavily subject to social influence and that errors easily result from external stimuli. The pioneering social psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated that individuals who have been shown illustrations of two different-sized lines are more likely to report that the shorter line is longer if they are exposed to planted confederates who declare that the shorter line is longer. Asch's basic result has been reproduced hundreds of times throughout the globe with many different types of questions. More generally, there is widespread agreement in the experimental literature that even modest changes in framing can create wildly different results.

Outside of the laboratory, there is also substantial evidence suggesting that suppliers are able to manipulate beliefs. In the legal sphere, competent attorneys are paid well to shape the beliefs of juries. Firms spend large amounts of money on advertising and other forms of belief manipulation. While some of this manipulation can be seen as correcting errors (that is, informing the consumer), not all advertising is strictly informative. In the pre-modern era, false advertising was common (touting the miraculous advantages of patent medicine for example) and presumably firms would not have spent on this unless it was having an effect.

Is there strong evidence that attempts at belief manipulation are successful on a large scale outside of the laboratory?

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Paternalism and Psychology: If Individuals' Ability to Make Rational Decisions Is Limited, Wouldn't Their Ability to Make Political Decisions Also Be Limited?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?