Thursday, April 8, 2010

Paternalism and the Rise of Risk-Averse Culture

So far I've suggested that paternalistic intervention is an other-regarding act performed on behalf of a beneficiary (or beneficiaries) by a benefactor. By definition it requires the violation of the liberty of that beneficiary in order to provide that benefit. Therefore, paternalism requires the application varying degrees of coercive force; usually in the form the imposition of a physical or economic threat. If the beneficiary voluntarily agrees to submit to the intervention without threat, it is NOT paternalistic, and interventions that merely entice beneficiaries (via rewards) without threatening a harms are NOT paternalistic. The case for paternalism is strongest when the benefactor seeks the removal of a harm. Harm is relative to individual and collective risk hierarchies. Irrationality, therefore, is relative to individual and collective risk hierarchies. And finally, paternalistic interventions either advance the interests of the beneficiary or they do not. Many interventions are either unsafe or ineffective, therefore, paternalism has an empirical component. An intervention that does not, in fact, provide a benefit (a positive cost-benefit ratio)is, strictly speaking, not paternalistic.

Authoritarian regimes are more prone to violate the liberty of citizens under the guise of paternalistic intervention. Indeed, citizens often become so acclimated to governmental authority that they willingly submit to governmental management of their personal risk-taking. Now, what happens when government uses its coercive power to define acceptable and unacceptable risk-taking? What are the social implications? Well, the first thing that happens is that minor risks are transformed into major risks and the range of acceptable risk-taking behavior narrows. Second, citizens begin to expect government to protect them from more and more low level risks, and over the long run, society become increasingly risk-averse. Admittedly, that is an empirical observation. Does it hold water? As a 58 year old libertarian, my observation is that the United States has become increasingly risk-averse. The most obvious examples are: increasingly strict drug laws, laws against smoking, laws against the use of transfats in restaurants, seat belts, child seats, helmet laws (I never wore a helmet when I rode my bike as a child). How about laws require that the organizers of large public gatherings take out liability insurance? Increasingly intrusive airport surveilance under the guise of protecting us from terrorists? Of course, in each of these cases we must ask the hard empirical question: "Do these interventions REALLY make us safer" Is government "better" at managing risk than I am? I don't know about you, but I'm willing to match my risk-taking acumen against government's any time. Then, pour me another beer, pass me the butter, and light me up a joint.

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