Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink, Know What I Mean, Know What I Mean?

OK, here’s where I think Sarah Conly goes wrong. She thinks that she can defeat “conservative” libertarianism in favor of “liberal” paternalism without sliding into conservative paternalism, by the following expedient: liberal paternalism accepts the agent’s own ends, and only “nudges” (coerces) when irrationality would tend to lead the agent to sabotage their own ends. Conservative paternalism, she thinks, instead concerns itself with setting ends for the agent. The problem is that this distinction won’t hold up, because a lot of conservative paternalism can be construed or re-construed as liberal paternalism plus stigma, with the stigma itself as a part of the benign “nudge”. For example, she would say that a conservative paternalist who bans abortion is saying that the life of a mother is inherently superior, and that a liberal paternalist would never ban abortion, because this would be to stray into setting ends. But suppose that the conservative paternalist reasons that in fact most women ultimately prefer the life they have that includes their children, or eventually regret not having children, so that having children is not the conservative’s foisted end, but the women’s own end. And suppose further that the conservative paternalist says, look, you’ll thank me later, but you are prone to miscalculation, undervaluing having children out of ignorance, tending to delay having children too long by overestimating how much time you’ve got, being overly optimistic about resources that will be available to you to raise children and pursue a career, etc. You’ll wish that we had made that abortion harder for you to get. For that matter, you’ll wish that you had been “nudged” away from a career altogether and into being a stay-at-home mom, you’ll wish that you had been nudged into a more traditional set of attitudes toward gender and a relationship to match, etc. etc. So it will turn out that the difference between the righteous liberal paternalist is not what policies are actually pursued (that’s an empirical question) but whether they are pursued with a nasty, moralistic, mean-spirited, stigmatizing intent, or a wonderfully benign “you’ll thank me later” patronizing intent. And that’s not going to be much of a difference in the end, unless it turns out that the kinds of things the conservative paternalist wants to do are always, remarkably, a bad idea on empirical grounds, and the kinds of things the liberal paternalist wants to do are always, remarkably, a good idea, again, on purely empirical grounds. But there’s no reason to think that the conservative paternalist’s policies are any better or worse in terms of what someone will thank you for later. (There are further questions: whether there can be a principled distinction between means and ends in the way her theory requires, whether expressed regret is a reliable indicator of actual ends, whether actual behavior isn’t a reliable indicator of actual ends, etc.)

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