Free Will as a "Social Problem"

Thursday, September 06, 2012

George Will discusses paternalistic government programs to discourage obesity and makes an observation about government use of punishment and reward related to the type of behavior it hopes to encourage. It is interesting to consider the following under the assumption that everything the government says about the risks and causes of obesity is correct (an assumption I don't personally make):

Research indicates that overweight individuals have "reasonably close" to accurate estimates of the increased health risks and decreased life expectancy associated with obesity. Hence the weakness of mandated information as a modifier of behavior. A study conducted after New York City mandated posting calorie counts in restaurant chains concluded that, while 28 percent of patrons said the information influenced their choices, researchers could not detect a change in calories purchased after the law.
This phenomenon replicates a similar one observed for smoking. Set aside the whole notion of "social problem" and whether the government has any business addressing such a thing:
Increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco mostly decrease consumption by light users, not the heavy users who are the social problem and whose demand is relatively inelastic.
At least in the case of heavy smoking, the conventional wisdom that it is dangerous to the smoker is correct. That said, it is astounding to me to see government do-gooders get away with claiming that their use of punishment and reward will have any benefit. If the prospect of lung cancer or any number of other smoking-related illnesses doesn't stop someone from smoking a pack a day, why would a tax?

If we cut Will an enormous amount of slack and concede that, by a paternalistic program "working", an individual actually changes his behavior in a direction closer what his objective self-interest would dictate, we have a partially valid complaint: Such programs don't work.

The problem here -- and the reason this approach fails -- is that the whole idea that the government should save us from ourselves is wrong. The government exists to protect us from other individuals forcing us to behave in ways contrary to our best judgement. When it attempts to protect us from ourselves, it is acting contrary to its proper purpose, negating our judgement in the process. Individuals have free will. If persuasion will not cause someone to change his own behavior, why should anything else do so, short of naked force?

To put the above more succinctly, the real problem with soft paternalism is that it tries to "solve" the unacknowledged "social problem" of individuals having free will.

-- CAV


: Fixed a typo.

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