A Quasi-Paternalist Takes on Paternalism

Cass Sunstein has a really interesting review of Sarah Conly's new book in the New York Times Review of Books.  Conly advocates strongly for paternalism in her book: Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism.  The interesting thing about this review is that Sunstein had a very popular book promoting his own version of paternalism.  Sunstein's version (libertarian paternalism) is admittedly among the least objectionable (though still found several reasons to object in my forthcoming book - the Food Police).  

Here are some of Sunstein's key critiques of Conly's work:

in my view, she underestimates the possibility that once all benefits and all costs are considered, we will generally be drawn to approaches that preserve freedom of choice. One reason involves the bluntness of coercive paternalism and the sheer diversity of people’s tastes and situations. Some of us care a great deal about the future, while others focus intensely on today and tomorrow. This difference may make perfect sense in light not of some bias toward the present, but of people’s different economic situations, ages, and valuations. Some people eat a lot more than others, and the reason may not be an absence of willpower or a neglect of long-term goals, but sheer enjoyment of food. Our ends are hardly limited to longevity and health; our short-term goals are a large part of what makes life worth living.


Conly favors a paternalism of means, but the line between means and ends can be fuzzy, and there is a risk that well-motivated efforts to promote people’s ends will end up mischaracterizing them.


Freedom of choice is an important safeguard against the potential mistakes of even the most well-motivated officials. Conly heavily depends on cost-benefit analysis . . . Officials may well be subject to the same kinds of errors that concern Conly in the first place. If we embrace cost-benefit analysis, we might be inclined to favor freedom of choice as a way of promoting private learning and reflection, avoiding unjustified costs, and (perhaps more important) providing a safety valve in the event of official errors.