08 December 2006

Temptation Shackled.

An essay in the New York Times on the new "soft paternalism": Discuss with reference to Romans 7 & 13, and the institution of marriage prior to the "no fault" divorce laws.

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 somehow 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 states with casino gambling, 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 program. 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 couldn’t resist sneaking 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. It is a way of restructuring the external world so that when future temptations arise, you will have no choice but to do what you’ve judged to be best for you. 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 in a program like Missouri’s or Michigan’s?

Plenty, say libertarian critics. To begin with, they don’t like soft paternalism when it involves the state’s coercive power; they are much happier with private self-binding schemes, like alcoholism clinics, Christmas savings clubs and Weight Watchers. They also 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.



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