Wednesday, October 31, 2007

New Paternalism Meets The Real World

But you're not a real wizard at all

When Tyler Senior was a young man, he used to reckon the best thing to do with old people was to shoot them. Now he's not quite so sure. Still, he's bound to be bucked up by what one of the world's leading economists has just written:

"Consider the following scenario. Scientists determine that, following careful empirical study and the meticulous application of cost-benefit principles grounded in utilitarian ethics, men ought not to be allowed to live beyond the age of 86 and women beyond the age of 88. You can easily see how the utilitarian calculus would lead to this conclusion and policy recommendation. By the time people cross those age thresholds, they tend to be frail, infirm and doddery. Many no longer enjoy life and may even wish they were dead.

Because but few of these old folk still make a productive contribution as workers, home makers or child minders, they also impose a serious financial burden on the community. Many no longer pay taxes but are net recipients of government transfers. The medical expenses incurred by and on behalf of the very old tend to be high. In the UK, with its tax-funded NHS, the elderly impose a non-trivial health-tax on the rest of society.

In addition to the financial/fiscal burden imposed by the elderly, they impose negative externalities. They drive too cautiously and fail to make due progress; they slow down other pedestrians on busy streets and during the rush to catch a bus, train or tube. Their Zimmer frames clog up passageways and entrance halls. They also are at times not very pleasant to look at, especially when they take out their dentures in a restaurant. Finally they can be highly irritating, because they tend to bang on about the good old days.

A utilitarian paternalistic government would know what to do in this situation. It would rewrite the intergenerational social contract to include mandatory involuntary euthanasia at age 87 for men and at age 89 for women.

The week before my 87th birthday, I would receive a note informing me that in a week's time I have to turn up at my local NHS hospital to be humanely executed by lethal injection. Those who have served in the armed forces could opt instead to be executed by firing squad. The penalty for failing to turn up would (of course) be death."

That's taken from Willem Buiter's excellent Maverecon blog. He's 58 himself, so he's got another 29 years blogging.

We have of course met Prof Buiter before (eg here), and he's always good value. The snappy title of this particular post is Beware the Perilous Protagonists of Patronising Paternalism: Richard Layard, Julian Le Grand and the New Paternalism, and his withering fire is directed at the new "science" of Happiness Economics (see previous BOM posts, eg here and here).

As you will recall, Happiness Economics uses opinion poll data to "prove" more money hasn't made us any happier overall. Therefore, governments should intervene, by for example, taxing above average incomes more heavily. Buiter objects to such "totalitarian" policy prescriptions:

"Private actions can be nudged, influenced and incentivised by the state using any of the tools and instruments it possesses, for no reason other than that the state believes this to be in our 'true' interest.

Well, thanks but no thanks. I prefer making my own mistakes to having someone else, be it the state or another entity or individual, make the 'right' choices for me."


Because when it comes to making choices it believes to be right for us, the state makes more mistakes than you or I would make in a hundred 87 year lifetimes. Consider just a few from today's headlines:

Drug addiction

To save us from ourselves, the state has chosen to outlaw a wide range of drugs. It has thus established a thriving black market. But the state has proved hopeless at policing the market and its attendant and lethal criminality. And our £40,000 pa prison cells are full of addicts driven to crime in order to fund their habit.

Meanwhile the state has set up a wide range of drug treatment programmes. They are wildly unsuccessful because almost all their clients have been bribed and cajoled to participate rather than making their own free will decision to kick the habit. Last year the National Treatment Agency (NTA) spent £384 million of our money treating 195,000 cases. The overall success rate is under 3%, so each success costs us £1.85m.


To save us making the wrong choices for our childrens' education, the state removed parental choice. It nationalised most schools. And the curriculum. And the exam system.

The catastrophic results are all too familiar. And nothing can be done. Although the £40bn pa school system is theoretically under the control of the state, in reality it's under nobody's control.

In desperation, Bottler is lashing out wildly, threatening the 670 schools that currently fail to deliver his target performance benchmark with closure (cf Stalingrad management of the NHS).

And what must they deliver? What's the high hurdle benchmark that schools operating under real parental choice might fail to reach? Why, merely that 30% of pupils must leave with five dumbed down A-C grade GCSEs. In any subject. At all.

Speed limits

To save us from killing ourselves and others on the roads, the state has imposed all manner of rigid restrictions, even on empty motorways. True, our road death rate is among the lowest in the world (see this blog), but it's no better than Germany where they famously have no fixed mandatory speed limit on motorways.

Most of us would drive sensibly anyway, but the state has imposed limits which even those responsible for enforcing don't believe or accept. Thus, we have the delicious case of Britain's most senior road traffic cop facing a ban for driving at 90mph on a dual carriageway.

Don't do as I do, do as I say.

PS Message for Tyler Senior- when you get your appointment note, just ignore it. There's no way the Life Fulfilment Executive (LIFE) will have any record.

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