Pubdate: Sun, 03 Dec 2006
Source: New York Times Magazine (NY)
Copyright: 2006 The New York Times Company
Author: Jim Holt
Note: Jim Holt, a regular contributor to the magazine, is working on 
a book about the puzzle of existence.
Bookmark: (Opinion)
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Heroin)

The Way We Live Now


When the government tells you that you can't smoke marijuana or that
you must wear a helmet when you ride your motorcycle even if you
happen to like the feeling of the wind in your hair, it is being
paternalistic. It is largely treating you the way a parent treats a
child, restricting your liberty for what it deems to be your own good.
Paternalistic laws aren't very popular in this country.

We hew to the principle that, children and the mentally ill apart, an
individual is a better judge of what's good for him than the state is
and that people should be free to do what they wish as long as their
actions don't harm others.

Contrary to what many people believe, you can even commit suicide
legally (although if you don't live in Oregon, you should think twice
about seeking assistance).

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.

You might naively imagine that you are one person, the same entity
from day to day. To the 18th-century philosopher David Hume, however,
the idea of a permanent "I" was a fiction.

Our mind, Hume wrote, "is nothing but a bundle or collection of
different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable
rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement." According to this
way of thinking, the self that inhabits your body today is only
similar to, not identical with, the self that is going to inhabit your
body tomorrow.

And the self that will inhabit your body decades hence?

A virtual stranger.

The idea of multiple selves may seem like a stoner's fantasy, but
economists who study human decision-making have found it surprisingly
useful. Consider: Most people, if given a choice today between doing
seven hours of irksome work on May 1, 2007, versus eight hours on May
15, 2007, opt for the former.

When May 1 arrives, however, they will find that their preference has
flipped: they now wish to put off the work for a couple of weeks, even
at the cost of having to do the extra hour's worth.

Why this inconsistency, if the self calling the shots is one and the

Further evidence for the fragmented self comes from neuroscience.
Brain scans show that the emotional part of the brain, the limbic
system, is especially active when the prospect of immediate
gratification presents itself.

But choice among longer-term options triggers more activity in the
"reasoning" part of the brain, located (suitably enough) higher up in
the cortex.

Now suppose you're tempted by a diet-violating Twinkie. Which part of
your brain -- the shortsighted emotional part or the farsighted
reasoning part -- gets to be the decider?

There may be no built-in hierarchy here, just two autonomous brain
modules in competition. That is why you might find yourself eating the
Twinkie even while knowing it's bad for you. (A similar disconnect
between two parts of your brain occurs when a visual illusion doesn't
go away even after you learn it's an illusion.)

The short-run self cares only about the present.

It is perfectly happy to indulge today and offload the costs onto
future selves.

For example, recent studies show that teenage smokers do not
underestimate the risk of getting lung cancer as an adult (if
anything, they tend to overestimate it); they simply don't mind making
the future self suffer for the pleasure of the moment.

The long-run self may deplore this ruinous behavior, but its prudent
resolutions are continually ignored.

Yet it can enforce its will indirectly by shaping the environment to
constrain some short-run selves from exploiting others -- by, say,
putting a time lock on the refrigerator.

But why, some skeptics ask, should the government side with your
prudent long-run self against your hedonistic short-run selves? What's
so great about the long-run self, anyway?

As the economist Glen Whitman has observed in a shrewd critique of
soft paternalism, the harms that selves impose on one another are
reciprocal: "The long-run self can harm the short-run self by adopting
self-control devices -- such as flushing cigarettes down the toilet,
refusing to allow ice cream in the house, checking into a clinic and
so on." It is not good to be profligate, lazy and obese, but neither
is to good to be a miser, a workaholic or an anorexic.

If the goal is to promote freedom, though, there is an interesting
argument favoring the long-run self. A distinctive quality of humans,
as the third earl of Shaftesbury observed three centuries ago, is that
we do not simply have desires; we also have feelings about our
desires. Take the unhappy heroin addict: he gives himself an injection
because he desires the drug, but he also has a desire to be rid of
this desire.

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt has given such "second order" desires
a central role in his analysis of free will: we act freely, he
submits, when we act on a desire that we actually desire to have, one
that we endorse as our own. Beings that do not reflect on the
desirability of their desires -- like animals and infants and,
perhaps, our short-run selves -- are what Frankfurt calls "wantons."

People have fashioned a wide range of techniques for keeping their
inner wantons under control -- like buying a pint of ice cream instead
of the more economical quart because they know they would end up
consuming the latter in one sitting.

So why can't soft paternalism be left to the private sector, as some
libertarians prefer?

The problem is that private self-binding schemes are easily subverted
when someone can make a buck off your weakness of will. One Michigan
man who signed up for a casino's private self-blacklisting program
found the owners all too accommodating when he had a change of heart.
"Within a half an hour, I was back in," he said.

Editorializing against soft paternalism earlier this year, The
Economist warned that "life would be duller if every reckless spirit
could outsource self-discipline to the state." There are certainly
more exalted ways to achieve mastery over unwelcome impulses. Thinkers
of an existentialist kidney, like Jean-Paul Sartre, used to insist
that each of us is free to redefine his character through an act of
radical choice.

For the religiously inclined, an access of divine grace might be what
is needed to stiffen the will.

But what if you are one of those people who rely on more mundane
stratagems, like self-binding? The general problem you face (as put by
the political theorist Jon Elster) is this: For a given uphill goal
and a given strength of will, does there exist a path, however
circuitous, that will get you to the top of the hill? By adding a new
path here and there, state soft paternalism makes it more likely that
the answer will be yes.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake