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Glaeser on Paternalism

On the latest episode of EconTalk (now up at EconTalk’s home page), Ed Glaeser and I discuss whether the insights of behavioral economics justify what he calls "soft paternalism," warning labels and other government interventions short of outright bans and taxes. One of Glaeser’s concerns (and he has many) is the slippery slope—that government starts with warning labels and then eventually regulates products more aggressively.

I find the idea of the State looking out for my interest deeply disturbing. First, government intervention invariably crowds out private activities that might help me make better decisions. And given that there is no such thing as "the government," inevitably, a complex set of political forces come into play that result in some political outcome rather than what might in a perfect world, be in my own interest. That is, it’s meaningless to say "the government will make that decision better than I can." There is no actor/decision maker/thinker/parent involved, just the inevitable interplay of special interests and self-interested politicians. And as Glaeser points out, if I as a decision maker am prone to mistakes why are politicians immune from these same imperfections?

You can listen to the Glaeser podcast here. One of the highlights for me is Glaeser’s recognition of the Nazis’ paternalism–their concern for exercise and good nutrition, for example.

The next episode of EconTalk will be available Monday, a conversation with Darius Lakdawalla of Rand and NBER about obesity.