Slippery Slopes and the New Paternalism

At Cato Unbound this month, economist and Cato adjunct scholar Glen Whitman discusses “soft” paternalism – the attempt to manage consumers’ choices in such a way that their “real” preferences come forward.

One often-cited example takes place in the cafeteria: Put fruit and healthy snacks up front, and people will be more likely to choose them. Put the chocolate cake first, and that’s what they pick instead. Paternalism, the argument runs, lies on a continuum, and some forms of it are really quite harmless. It’s not (or not only) a boot stamping on a human face forever. It’s also the nice lady at the cafeteria, who helps you pick out healthy food. Healthy food is what you really wanted anyway. So what could be wrong with that?

Whitman, however, turns the argument around a bit: Legislators, too, suffer from bias. What if paternalistic legislation proves sort of like that chocolate cake? By placing it up front, and by making it look appealing, legislators may choose it too often, and they may neglect the healthier – but to them less appealing – choice of freedom. What if a little paternalism now turns into a lot of paternalism later? And where are our “real” preferences, anyway? Whitman offers arguments for why a slippery slope may very well exist here, and examples of how the theory of soft paternalism has developed teeth in practice.

Joining him later this week will be noted economists Richard Thaler, Jonathan Klick, and Shane Frederick, for a discussion that should last through the next couple of weeks. Be sure to stop by often and see it develop.