Protecting People From Themselves

By David S. Broder
Sunday, April 16, 2006

Apparently worried that we don't have enough to worry about, the editors of the Economist, the British newspaper that looks like a magazine, put on their April 8 cover an ominous, giant eyeball, under the headline "The state is looking after you."

The subject of the issue's lead editorial and a three-page special report is the threat to individual freedom the editors discern in a new movement gaining support among some politicians and academics on both sides of the Atlantic.

They call it "soft paternalism." Its practitioners "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."

An example of soft paternalism can be found in Missouri. According to the Economist, the state has passed a statute barring some residents from setting foot in any of the 11 riverboat casinos it has licensed. Those who are caught violating the law can be arrested for trespassing and see their winnings confiscated by the cops.

That sounds pretty harsh, but the ban applies only to those who have voluntarily placed their own names on the list, in order to break their addiction to gambling. The magazine says that about 10,000 gamblers have taken that step in Missouri, seeking help for a problem in their lives.

Similar approaches can change economic behavior. One experiment showed how the national savings rate might be increased by tweaking the way companies set up their retirement plans.

Currently employers typically induce workers to save for these plans by promising to match the portion of the salary the employee puts aside for his retirement years. The government provides tax incentives for such accounts.

But despite their obvious attractions, lethargy or the desire to maximize current take-home pay keeps many workers from signing up. The proposed solution: Make deductions for the savings plans automatic, unless the worker opts out. In one company where the change was made, participation jumped from 49 percent to 86 percent, boosting prospects for bright retirements.

The Economist's articles spotlight a variety of other schemes that have been concocted by noted economists and lawyers such as Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago. Their common theme is a desire to achieve some widely recognized social goal with what sponsors consider a minimal loss of freedom.

For example, everyone knows that anti-smoking campaigns have persuaded millions of people to quit. But millions of others continue to jeopardize their health and increase the national medical bill because they cannot keep their promise to themselves to quit smoking next week or next month.

The soft paternalists recommend further government intervention. One option they suggest would be a ban on smoking for everyone except those who purchase a rather expensive license to persist. By forcing the choice in explicit terms, government could nudge people into doing what they say they want to do -- quit.

Another possibility, even less coercive, would be to sell cigarettes only by contract. In this scheme, an individual would sign up and pay in advance for, say, one carton a week or maybe two a month, and would be limited to that number. By moving the choice away from the immediate impulse, the state would make the decision more deliberate and thereby help the smoker break the habit.

On all these proposals, the Economist's editors have one nagging concern: Will these soft paternalism schemes gradually, over time, erode individual freedom? Will soft paternalism simply be a way station on the road to a more authoritarian state, one where smoking is banned entirely or saving is required from every paycheck?

They quote with approval John Stuart Mill's warning in his essay "On Liberty": "He who lets the world . . . choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation." By contrast, the free individual must possess reason and judgment to make his own decisions, "and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision."

Their worry is that soft paternalism will weaken those virtues. You are welcome to join them if your worry list is worrisomely short.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company