The answer, as Mario Rizzo suggested in last week’s debate with Thaler, lies in S&T’s unorthodox definition of “libertarian.” In their article “Libertarian Paternalism Is Not an Oxymoron,” they define libertarian as a continuous variable relating to the cost of exercising choice:
It should now be clear that the difference between libertarian and non-libertarian paternalism is not simple and rigid. The libertarian paternalist insists on preserving choice, whereas the non-libertarian paternalist is willing to foreclose choice. But in all cases, a real question is the cost of exercising choice, and here there is a continuum rather than a sharp dichotomy. ... [A] libertarian paternalist who is especially confident of his welfare judgments would be willing to impose real costs on workers and consumers who seek to do what, in the paternalist’s view, would not be in their best interests.” (1185-86; emphasis added)Later, S&T say that clearly coercive policies occupy one end of the cost-of-exercising-choice continuum::
Almost all of the time, even the non-libertarian paternalist will allow choosers, at some cost, to reject the proposed course of action. Those who are required to wear motorcycle helmets can decide to risk the relevant penalty, and to pay it if need be. Employers and employees might agree to sub-minimum wage work and risk the penalties if they are caught. In this particular sense, penalties are always prices. (1189-90)In his debate with Mario, Thaler claimed that his kind of paternalism creates no risk of a slippery slope. Why not? “In our case, by insisting, as we do, on only libertarian paternalism, the slope runs into a brick wall before it even gets started.” So the libertarian aspect of libertarian paternalism is supposed to provide a bulwark against slippage. But as the passages above illustrate, the leading advocates of libertarian paternalism don’t think libertarianism is anything close to a brick wall. It’s a gentle gradient that leads from private-and-voluntary to public-and-mandatory. At one end are privately default savings plans. At the other end, we may infer, is drug prohibition; after all, you can do all the drugs you want if you’re willing to pay the price of possible imprisonment!
And if you need evidence that slippage will occur in this rubric, you need only look at S&T’s leading paper on the subject. By the end of the paper, they have already slid a far piece down the slope, to the plainly coercive policies identified in my prior post. Of course, this is a slope of arguments, not actual policies. But if the chief architects of libertarian paternalism can't resist the slope, there's no reason to think actual policymakers can.
So how do actual libertarians resist the slope? By defining libertarian in a way that, while perhaps fuzzy in certain respects, does not rely on a gradient. As Mario said in the debate, the real issue for libertarians is not the cost of exercising choice, but who imposes the cost. If it’s costly for me to smoke cigarettes because I have to walk a mile to the nearest store, that’s neither coercive nor non-libertarian; it’s just a fact of reality that results, in part, from the store owner’s and my free choices about where to locate. On the other hand, if I have to pay a $0.10 tax per pack, that is both coercive and non-libertarian; it’s a result of a third party – the state – interfering with our choices. This is the standard understanding among actual libertarians, but it is not S&T’s.
If we employ S&T’s analytical approach in making policy, rest assured that the slope is well greased.