A Second Look At The Nanny State

In an excerpt from his new book, Cass Sunstein defends certain forms of paternalism:

Here’s a simple but striking example of the possibility that paternalism can actually increase people’s welfare. We would ordinarily expect people to be worse off if government makes it more expensive for them to purchase goods that they want. If government tells you that you have to spend more to buy a computer, a lamp, or a pair of shoes, your life will hardly be better. But empirical work suggests that there are exceptions. More specifically, cigarettes taxes appear [pdf] to make smokers happier. To the extent that this is so, it is because smokers tend to be less happy because they smoke. When they are taxed, they smoke less and might even quit, and they are better off as a result.

For various reasons, including its addictive nature, smoking is a highly unusual activity. In light of the risks of error and abuse, we have to be careful in generalizing from it. But the broader point is that in some cases, there can be real space between anticipated welfare and actual experience, leaving room for a paternalism that respects people’s ends.