NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 8, 2006

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," says Jim Holt of the New York Times Magazine. 

For 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, which 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 alone, more than 10,000 people have availed themselves of the program.

But there are many who oppose the movement, particularly among the libertarian camp. 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.  They also worry that soft paternalism can be a slippery slope to the harder variety, such as "sin taxes" and outright bans.  But some have deeper misgivings, namely, 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.

Source: Jim Holt, "The New, Soft Paternalism," New York Times Magazine, December 3, 2006.

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