Friday, April 07, 2006

It's just a suggestion, really

Big Brother is looking after you. Well, he’s not directly telling you what to do, he’s only giving you incentive to move in one direction or the other. This is an interesting article in the Economist about a concept called Soft Paternalism.

      What they propose is “soft paternalism” . Thanks to years of patient observation of people's behaviour, they have come to understand your weaknesses and blindspots better than you might know them yourself. Now they hope to turn them to your advantage. They are paternalists, because they want to help you make the choices you would make for yourself—if only you had the strength of will and the sharpness of mind. But unlike “hard” paternalists, who ban some things and mandate others, the softer kind aim only to skew your decisions, without infringing greatly on your freedom of choice. Technocrats, itching to perfect society, find it irresistible. What should the supposed beneficiaries think?

I think that we already do this to a certain extent. It does attract me better than the government absolutely telling me what to do. The ways in which we do this involve things like tax breaks for charitable giving and home ownership. These are things that better our society, but are encouraged by the government (although imagine Uncle Sam telling us we HAVE to own a house by age 30 or something).

The article also brings up things like cooling off periods for marriage, divorce, buying guns and smoking (we already do have them for divorce and guns in many cases). Automatic enrollment in things, like pension plans (think Social Security) that you can opt out of if you want. Hmmmm.

      Soft paternalism has much in its favour. First, it is certainly better than hard paternalism. Second, a government has to provide information to citizens in order for them to make rational decisions on everything from smoking to breastfeeding to organ donation. Even a government reluctant to second-guess its citizens ends up advising them in one way or another. What people decide they want is often a product of the way a choice is framed for them—they take the first thing on the menu, or a bit of everything. Even a truly liberal government would find itself shaping the wishes and choices to which it earnestly wants to defer. It's surely better to lure people into pension schemes than out of them.

      Yet from the point of view of liberty, there is a serious danger of overreach, and therefore grounds for caution. Politicians, after all, are hardly strangers to the art of framing the public's choices and rigging its decisions for partisan ends. And what is to stop lobbyists, axe-grinders and busybodies of all kinds hijacking the whole effort? There is, admittedly, a safety valve. People remain free to reject the choices soft paternalism tries to guide them into—that is what is distinctive about it. But though people will still have this freedom, most won't bother to use it—that is what makes soft paternalism work. For all its potential, and its advantage over paternalism of the hard sort, this is a tool that transfers power from the individual to the state, which only sometimes knows best.

OK, so there’s chance of corruption in any system. You wouldn’t want this getting out of hand, but I find the train of thought coming from policy wonks in Washington a step in a fresher direction. It’s certainly better than Hard Paternalism.

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