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Voluntary paternalism

Mike Konczal wonders whether he's a paternalist:

Quick thought experiment: I’m the King of Rortybomb Island, and you want to open a casino on my island. I know many people will enjoy this, but many people won’t but won’t be able to prevent themselves from going to the casino, no matter how much they hate themselves in the morning. So what I propose is that you can open your casino, but you have to maintain a list of people who voluntarily want to never be allowed into the casino, no matter how much they beg when the time comes. The person can’t get off the list in a short period of time, it’s fairly binding.

We can also assume, reasonably, that people with a gambling addiction/problem are the most profitable to the casino, so there’s no way you and your casino backers would voluntarily, outside public pressure or government influence, create this list. So the government forces them to create it to get a business license.

I think that’s an awesome solution to the problem above. My question: Is this paternalistic? Specifically, is this paternalistic towards consumers of gambling services? I don’t think so. In fact, I think the exact opposite: It makes markets more complete, and thus more efficient and reflective of information.

Well, is he?

By Ezra Klein  |  January 8, 2010; 3:39 PM ET
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i love my President and support this health care bill.
BUT>> your cheerleading is unseemly.

Posted by: pagalo | January 8, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Don't casinos already maintain these kind of self-exclusion lists? A quick google tells me, yes.
etc., etc.

I guess the casinos don't need a daddy on this issue? Wait, what's the question here?

Posted by: JJenkins2 | January 8, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

My prediction is that problem gamblers enjoy the casino and so wouldn't sign up to the no admission list. Hello! Adiction 101.

Moreover, the casinos would like this. The people who leave as soon as they break even or who only play small bets long enough for a free drink would sign up for the list. The casinos would be left with a greater concentration of high profit problem gamblers.

You have to create a mandate that required problem gamblers to sign up for the no admission list. That mandate would be paternalistic.

Posted by: ideallydc | January 8, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Just by way of contrast, in Canada (socialist paradise), the government owns and/or operates all the casinos. Casinos are required to maintain just such voluntary self-exclusion lists, and there's a great hue and cry from the fourth estate if casinos are perceived to be insufficiently paternalistic (e.g.

Peace, order, and good government, innit.

Posted by: subo2 | January 8, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Can you point to any major policy choice that isn't "paternalistic" in some sense? Any policy choice you make forecloses certain other choices. And it makes SOME choices almost inevitable.

If we want universality, we need some method of guaranteeing buy-in. Either that's an entitlement or a mandate. But without one you can't have the other.

Similarly, if you want low taxes you have to choose either worse services or more public debt. This of course limits people's economic and life choices and is therefore "paternalistic." But of course you never hear it described as such.

In your example, ALLOWING THE CASINO TO BE BUILT AT ALL will structure choices in predictable ways. In that sense, yeah, it's paternalistic -- you're mandating that some people with latent gambling addictions will destroy their lives. That's a policy choice just like taking steps to stop them is.

Posted by: NS12345 | January 8, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Sorry JJenkins2, the self exclusion program doesn't appear to work as you describe. Some quick googling of my own ( indicates that the casino self-exclusion list allows the casino to refuse your wager. It does not require them to do so. Also, it doesn't appear to provide any real means of determining if you are on the list or not.

If you're on the list and do manage to gamble, you cannot collect your winnings. The casino will not, however, return your losses.

Oh, and by the way, even this much regulation was the result of a state law in New Jersey. So it does look like somebody needs a Daddy looking over things.

Posted by: travisormsby | January 8, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Yes. It is paternalistic. A decision of a person to patronize a casino and throw away her or his money is a private decision and he or she throwing way money harms no one else.

However, in case Konczal is speaking metaphorically, it is not paternalistic, rather it is defensive, for we the citizenry, though our government dedicated to "promote the general welfare", to impose regulations upon the financial industry to prevent it from, metaphorically speaking, entering casinos.

Posted by: ChrisBrown11 | January 8, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

What is the underlying point here?

Posted by: bmull | January 8, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

It could be a soft paternalist measure along the lines of Rawls or Kleinig since the goal is to preserve the agent's ability to make rational decisions and hold to them. Though that's still debatable.

Gerry Dworkin summarizes some of the distinctions here:
(though his conception of soft paternalism is a bit different from the one I'm attributing to Kleinig)

Posted by: a23145m1 | January 8, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

At the end of the day, policy, to me, is what's most important. While social concerns have always been important to me, the reason I first started opposing casinos and the reason I fought so hard in Massachusetts to prevent them (and continue to do so) is because they're lousy policy. What do Connecticutt, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have in common with Massachusetts? They're all in the North East, they all have slots and they *all* have higher taxes. No state has ever solved its budget problems with casinos.

It's a money vacuum, with money starting in the economy, going straight out. Local businesses go under. Atlantic City went from having over 220 restaurants, bars and clubs to having less than 60. Detroit's lost over 20% of their small businesses since adding casinos in the 90s. According to federal statistics, 1 in 20 people within 50 miles of a casino or slot parlor become addicted (with many, many more in a high-risk group), which means essentially 1 in 4 families are financially ruined within 50 miles of the casino/slot parlor.

Costs that tally into the hundreds of millions are never calculated in the costs of having casinos -- loss to state tax income coming from those no longer existent small businesses, state lottery funds, as well as added expenses in the 1,000+ person state agency to oversee casinos (according to AG Martha Coakley, that's what Massachusetts would need to oversee casinos), as well as huge costs to cities and towns nearby casinos having to add infrastructure (up to tens of millions), as well as school space and teachers from a large influx of newcomers in the community that work at the casino, shipped from all over the country and world, most often coming from poorer families that correlate highly with expensive special education and english-as-second-language burdens to local communities. I'm all for ensuring these students are all well-educated, but it's *not* the casinos that pay for them.

Is it paternalistic to ban casinos because of all those things? Maybe, but it's also good policy. There are other ways to gamble than at a casino. No one has advocated banning Friday night poker with your friends -- and very, very few have advocated banning state lotteries. It's all about casinos and what they do to local economies, communities and state and local budgets.

Posted by: ryanstake | January 8, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

thanks, travisormsby--I had a suspicion that these self-exclusion lists didn't work all that well. But it's not like they don't exist at all. And it seems to be a state by state issue (not a federal one).

I don't particularly have a problem with paternalism (as long as I agree that the limitations being placed on the public are constitutional and 'for the common good'). I'm no libertarian. Of course, it's always a question of whether you agree with what the government is wanting to be paternalistic about. My right to choose an abortion? Hands off! Stronger gun control? Fine by me. Of course, many would disagree vehemently. The public ultimately controls what strictures it is willing to have placed on itself.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | January 8, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

This strongest analogue to what you're suggesting here is actually the libertarian's highest principle, i.e., freedom of contract. Let me explain...

A contract is basically an agreement you enter into with another person that is, critically, *enforced* by the state. Conceivably, we could have no contract law, and the only way to make someone honor their side of a bargain would be by pressuring them someone (pleading, threatening, horse head on door step Godfather-style, etc.). Instead, we have the government be the enforcement mechanism for the contract. Is that paternalistic? Libertarians would say no. But if that's true, then why would a person's decision to be on a "exclude from casinos" list be any different? In both situations, you basically have someone expressing a preference at time 1 that, regardless of what happens at time 2, he shall be held to the preference he made at time 1.

In both contract and the "exclude from casinos" list, all the government is doing is empowering the individual to make his word actually mean something. In the contract case, the promisor is using his government-supported promise as a medium of exchange, while in the casino case there appears to be no exchange. It's unclear why this would matter with regard to the issue of paternalism, though -- or at least I can't think of any reasons.

Posted by: blah1 | January 8, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Of course it's paternalism. It's based on the idea that people can't (in the short term) control their actions, but have a higher set of values, not reflected in the market, which must be protected by the intervention of the state.

That doesn't make it bad.

Posted by: adamiani | January 9, 2010 4:05 AM | Report abuse

No one has advocated banning Friday night poker with your friends

Friday night poker with your friends is, in fact, illegal.

Posted by: jlk7e | January 9, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Using the broadest definition, any government action is inherently paternalistic. So is most non-profit work. So is the vast majority of social interaction. Isn't it? I think the whole debate about paternalism is a bit misguided.

Posted by: Levijohn | January 9, 2010 10:49 PM | Report abuse

To start like a philosopher, that depends on the definition of paternalism. If "paternalism" allows only for current wants of persons to count in favor/against of some acts that intervene in the actions of others, then the example would indeed be a case of (soft) paternalism.

But there's really no reason not to allow previous binding engagements to also be considered. A binding voluntary contract between the customer and the casino would not be paternalistic, and I think this is according to the most popular view in the academic literature on paternalism.

After all, the very nature of most contracts is that they MUST be binding, that's what contract means. So, on the individual level, it is not paternalistic, because it's a voluntary contract, and persons have a right to enter into binding contracts. Contracts entail responsibilities and prohibitions, and these are not paternalistic in nature, because one cannot be paternalistic toward oneself (by definition). And neither is this idea about self-regulating contracts revolutionary to anyone at all versed in the academic paternalism-discussion.

Paternalism is about individuals, not entities like corporations. Regulation of corporations may be paternalistic in nature, but most often it's not,and meant solely for the protection of CONSUMERS, not corporations. Thus the question is misguided, and the terminology of paternalism IS NOT INTENDED to be used to refer to legislative actions between the government and non-person entities. (Because only persons have moral rights, and that's where the paternalism-discussion stems from.).

SHORT ANSWER: not paternalism in the customer-casino -relationship, not pertaining to questions of paternalism in the case of the government-casino -relationship.

Posted by: AL3X | January 11, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

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