The Paternalist Meets His Match

That is the title of a new paper that I co-authored with Bailey Norwood and Stephan Marette that was just released by the journal  Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy.  It will be coming out in their special issue on Nudge.

Here are a few excerpts from the paper: 

As illustrated by Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No,” and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaigns, public figures are often interested in the choices made by others. Indeed, concern for other’s food and health choices is often manifested in public policy, from America’s 1920s-era prohibition on alcohol, all the way to today’s bans on trans fats. Some form of altruism is often indicated as the prime motivator for such paternalism (e.g., Arrow 1963; Jacobsson et al. 2007). Developments in behavioral economics have added fuel to the fire by suggesting that people’s health and food choices may not actually promote their own long-term well-being.


Yet, the conclusion that paternalism is warranted in light of the evidence of behavioral biases is typically a logical extrapolation, rather than a direct observation that paternalistic policies actually maximize efficiency or enhance welfare, however conceived. . . . The purpose of this paper is to study paternalism from both the perspective of the paternalist and the recipient of the paternalism (the person whom we refer to as the paternalee). That is, rather than taking evidence of decision-making biases as prima fascia justification for paternalism, we study how paternalists make decisions for others and how paternalees respond to decisions made for them.

From the abstract: 

Using data from over 300 people recruited from two cities in the United States and France, we study how choices between a relatively healthy item (apples) and a relatively unhealthy item (cookies) are influenced by one’s role as either the paternalist or the paternalee. We find that after being provided information on nutritional content, but not before, paternalists make healthier choices for the paternalees than for themselves. Surprisingly, prior to being provided information, paternalees desire healthier choices than they expect the paternalists to give, a phenomenon that seems to arise from a type of egotism where individuals believe they make healthier choices than everyone else. Results in both locations reveal that more than 75% of paternalees prefer their own choices compared to the ones made for them by the paternalists, and are willing to pay nontrivial amounts to have their own choices. Any intrinsic value people place on the freedom of choice must be weighed against whatever benefits might arise from paternalistic policies, and consequently the scope for paternalism may be narrower than is often purported.