Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Another Thought about Libertarian Paternalism

Every individual possesses a complex and unique, but ever-changing, set of tastes and preferences. The individual seeks to strike a balance among those tastes and preferences in a way that, very roughly, maximizes personal satisfaction (utility). The outcome of the balancing act depends on:
  • ability to acquire and evaluate information
  • cost of making and changing decisions
  • constraints of income and wealth (anticipated as well as current)
  • binding commitments from the past that may limit freedom of action (or which may be changed or abrogated at some psychic or pecuniary cost)
  • laws and social norms that may do the same (or which we may choose to flout, at some cost)
Paternalists -- "libertarian" or otherwise -- who claim that they want to improve the lot of their fellow humans, choose to do so in a peculiar way. They seek to further constrain personal choice through the adoption of policies that ignore the complex and evolving tastes and preferences of individuals. Those policies focus, instead, on a particular desideratum, such as wealth-maximization or the "well being" that arises from enjoying certain benefits (e.g., 6 weeks of vacation or "free" child care).

I understand why individuals who are deluded by the allure of a "free lunch" (e.g., a mandatory 6-week vacation) will demand paternalistic schemes. But I am here to tell you the following:
Do not presume to know what makes me happy. Do not seek to impose on me your scheme for maximizing my wealth or well-being. You don't know and can never know what makes me tick. When I was 22 I wasn't interested in accumulating wealth, I was interested in paying my bills. When I turned 24 I became interested in accumulating wealth, but I didn't pursue it vigorously until I turned 38. In the meantime, I wasted some wealth in the pursuit of a dream; out of that pursuit came a lesson in how to run a business. But if I had wanted to convert that lesson into wealth maximization, I wouldn't have chosen to return to the quasi-public sector and, eventually, to retire early. And if I had been forced to take six weeks' vacation a year, I couldn't have retired early.
I'm unique only in that my particular story is unique. We are all unique. None of us deserves paternalism -- "libertarian" or otherwise.

Related posts:

The Rationality Fallacy
Socialist Calculation and the Turing Test (02/12/05)
Libertarian Paternalism (04/24/05)
A Libertarian Paternalist's Dream World (05/23/05)
The Short Answer to Libertarian Paternalism (06/24/05)
Second-Guessing, Paternalism, Parentalism, and Choice (07/13/05)