Is the treatment positive expected value, or negative expected value?

Well, which one is it? If you consider the treatments of remdesivir or monoclonal antibodies for President Trump, their application is either positive expected value or negative expected value. If they are positive expected value, you should be for using them!  (I don’t mean that as a political statement, sub in another patient’s name if […]

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Special treatment for the powerful?

Should powerful people be treated differently? Should they get special treatment? Should their bad behavior be more easily excused? It seems to me that there are two arguments to consider:

1. Decisions made by powerful people are more consequential for all of us.
2. Societies operate more effectively if there is an egalitarian sense of solidarity.

With the first argument, one might want to excuse occasional bad behavior, as there could be a great cost to replacing a powerful person with someone less skilled. Here you might think of the famous case of General Patton slapping a soldier suffering from shell shock, or General McArthur’s attempt to undercut Truman’s authority in Korea. Neither is a perfect example of this dilemma, but in both cases these two issues come into play to some extent.

Another example is presidential scandals. I’ve seen several examples in my lifetime that would have led to the individual being fired from his job if he were less powerful. This sense of the leader being above the law is of course much more pronounced in less developed countries, or in pre-modern times in the West.

One can also find some evidence of the solidarity principle at work. US presidents earn a salary of $400,000. While that is well above a middle class salary, it’s still a sum that average people can visualize–perhaps they know a doctor or lawyer with that income–unlike the eight figure salaries of top corporate executives. This may be society’s way of making the president seem less special.

On the other hand, the US president receives a “total compensation” that is arguable the highest on Earth. He lives in the best house, has the best transport, the best bodyguards, the most deferential servants, dinner parties with the most distinguished guests, etc. Even Jeff Bezos can’t easily replicate that consumption bundle.

At first glance, it might seem like the utilitarian position would be to provide special treatment to the powerful, as their decisions are so consequential. In fact, all good arguments are utilitarian arguments. Countries with a high degree of social cohesion and solidarity tend to do better in terms of governance. A place like Denmark is less likely to offer special treatment to its leaders than the Congo or Syria, and more likely to be better governed.  That fact is also of relevance to utilitarians.

I suspect there are no hard and fast rules here, which apply in every single case. As a general principle, there are some clear social benefits to creating a society where each person is viewed as having equal value, and no one is exempt from the rules. On the other hand, there may be individual cases where applying this principle strictly means that society is shooting itself in the foot.

It’s sort of like torture.  Have a general rule against torture, but if there’s a ticking nuclear bomb in NYC . . .

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Guest Contribution: “Will the Coronavirus Spur Action on Climate Change?”

Today, we present a guest post written by Jeffrey Frankel, Harpel Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and formerly a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.  A shorter version appeared in Project Syndicate and The Guardian. From early on in this pandemic, a common reaction has been “at least, maybe now we will […]

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Nudge: Welfare State Edition

Simplistic summary of a long debate on paternalism:

 

Hard Paternalist: Government should force weak human beings to do what’s in their own best interest.

Knee-Jerk Libertarian: No, that’s totalitarian.

Soft Paternalist: Government should nudge weak human beings to do what’s in their own best interest.

Thoughtful Libertarian: You define “nudges” so elastically that you still end up being pretty totalitarian.

 

Rizzo and Whitman’s Escaping Paternalism exemplifies the Thoughtful Libertarian position; indeed, as I’ve already said, they’ve probably written the best book on paternalism.  Only after the Book Club ended, though, did the following compromise position occur to me: Instead of using all means at its disposal to nudge people to do what’s in their own best interest, government should limit itself to using the welfare state to nudge its beneficiaries to do what’s in their own best interest.

Let’s call this “Ward Paternalism” – paternalism limited to people who are dependents of the government.  For example, rather than give welfare recipients cash to spend, a Ward Paternalist might give them food stamps instead.  Why?  To nudge them into buying groceries instead of alcohol.

Key point: Under Ward Paternalism, anyone who doesn’t want to be nudged can simply decline to become dependent on the government.  You can spend their own money your own way, no questions asked.  If, however, you ask taxpayers for help, the help comes with strings attached to encourage you to get your life in order.  He who pays the piper, calls the tune – and why shouldn’t the tune be, “Get your life in order”?

Soft paternalists often call their position “libertarian paternalism.”  Ward Paternalism, however, better fits the label, because Ward Paternalism preserves the right of independent adults to do as they please.  The restrictions are limited to those who opt in by pleading inability to support themselves.

Why, though, would anyone support Ward Paternalism?  Top two reasons:

1. While irresponsibility is not the sole cause of desperation, it is plainly a major cause.  The very fact that you’re asking for government help therefore raises serious doubts about your own prudence.  And it makes sense to focus paternalistic energy on you.

2. The standard moral constraint to leave others alone does not apply.  “Leave me alone, I don’t want your help” has great force.  “Help me, but don’t presume to tell me how to live my life” has little.

 

Before you dismiss it as an eccentric or arrogant position, notice that Ward Paternalism is already enshrined in a wide range of government programs.  Governments routinely redistribute in kind; they much prefer to hand out food, health care, schooling, or housing than cash.  Much of the reason, no doubt, is that governments want to make sure that children in poor families get food, health care, schooling, and housing even if their parents have other priorities.  The rest of the reason, though, is that governments are nudging the adults themselves to prioritize food, health care, schooling, and housing over alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and gambling.  The same goes for government pensions; you can’t start spending your retirement when you’re fifty, because the government wants to ensure that you won’t be starving on the streets when you’re seventy.  If an independent adult can fairly protest, “It’s my money and I’ll do what I want with it,” why can’t taxpayers just as fairly protest, “It’s our money and you’ll use it as we think best”?

What about the slippery slope?  Rizzo and Whitman powerfully argue for its potency.  Yet in this case, we face multiple slopes.  If we scrupulously avoid the slope where government uses conditional redistribution to dictate our lifestyles, we expose ourselves to the slope where government hands out money like a drunken sailor.  And in any case, attaching endless strings to government money is a sneaky route to austerity, a policy program that deserves our full support.  If government nudges the people aggressively enough to inspire a massive wave of declarations of independence, so much the better.

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