Paternalist Slopes

41 Pages Posted: 2 Feb 2007

See all articles by Douglas Glen Whitman

Douglas Glen Whitman

California State University, Northridge - Department of Economics

Mario J. Rizzo

New York University


A growing literature in law and public policy harnesses research in behavioral economics to justify a new form of paternalism. Contributors to this literature typically emphasize the modest, non-intrusive character of their proposals. A distinct literature in law and public policy analyzes the validity of "slippery slope" arguments. Contributors to this literature have identified various mechanisms and processes by which slippery slopes operate, as well as the circumstances in which the threat of such slopes is greatest.

The present article sits at the nexus of the new paternalist literature and the slippery slopes literature. We argue that the new paternalism exhibits many characteristics identified by the slopes literature as conducive to slippery slopes. Specifically, the new paternalism exhibits considerable theoretical and empirical vagueness, making it vulnerable to slopes resulting from altered economic incentives, enforcement needs, deference to perceived authority, bias toward simple principles, and reframing of the status quo. These slope processes are especially likely when decisionmakers are subject to cognitive biases - as the new paternalists insist they are. Consequently, soft paternalism can pave the way for harder paternalism. We conclude that policymaking based on new paternalist reasoning should be considered with greater trepidation than its advocates have suggested.

Keywords: paternalism, slippery slopes, behavioral economics

JEL Classification: B5, D7, I0, K0

Suggested Citation

Whitman, Douglas Glen and Rizzo, Mario J., Paternalist Slopes. NYU Journal of Law & Liberty, Forthcoming, NYU Law and Economics Research Paper No. 07-08, Available at SSRN:

Douglas Glen Whitman (Contact Author)

California State University, Northridge - Department of Economics ( email )

18111 Nordhoff Street
Northridge, CA 91330
United States
818-677-4542 (Phone)

Mario J. Rizzo

New York University ( email )

Department of Economics
19 W, 4th Street
New York, NY 10012
United States
212-998-8932 (Phone)
212-995-4186 (Fax)

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