The New Hampshire State Senate recently rejected a bill that would have mandated seat belt use for all adults. According to the media, New Hampshire is the only U.S. state without some such law. The discussion involved, unsurprisingly, issues of paternalism and "being told what to do"--squibs from earlier stories in the New York Times noted that "For many residents, buckling up and being required to buckle up are 2 different things," and one proponent of the bill noted that the debate "harkens [sic] to the libertarian 'don't tell me what to do' streak that characterizes much of [NH] politics." The Times stories also noted that "New Hampshire has the lowest rate of seat belt use in the country, 49.6 percent," and that "77 percent of fatal crashes in the state involved occupants who were not wearing seat belts."
Paternalism, of course (whether asymmetric, libertarian, emotional, or other), is increasingly discussed in legal academia. Much of the connection to ELS is in the context of evaluating whether particular interventions (as just one instance, Thaler and Benartzi's SMarT investment approach) in fact improve welfare on some specific outcome.
Less empirical analysis, I think, goes to the justification of such "paternalistic" intervention, and I hoped to post a few comments in that context, using the New Hampshire example as a vehicle [sorry, pun intended] for mentioning empirical research relevant to some of the usual objections to "telling someone what to do." Existing empirical work may indicate that we need to look a little harder at such objections--and I think providing empirical grounds for such a discussion is a fruitful effort for ELS in any context.
Offhand I can imagine at least five such objections, falling roughly into three categories. First is the classic Millian notion that people know their own preferences, and as a result are best at identifying and choosing their own preferences. Second is the classic autonomy argument: people's freedom to choose should be valued per se ("don't tell me what to do!") ; relatedly, people's preference for the freedom to choose should be valued per se. Third, people learn from their mistakes, and should therefore be allowed to make them--perhaps simply for the substantive benefit of learning what is correct, perhaps to "build character." Jon Klick and Greg Mitchell get at this third category in their recent response to libertarian paternalism (among many other points, of course).
(At least two other objections, mentioned recently by Ilya Somin on the Volokh Conspiracy, involve the accountability of chosen "experts" who make paternalistic decisions and whether those experts should get the final word. A related one, of course, involves public choice and capture. I'll set those aside to the extent that they involve evaluation of the means of effectuating interventions once it's decided that paternalism is appropriate [except where Somin, for instance, notes that "Although the expert is more knowledgeable than I am about technical issues in his field, I am more knowledgeable than he is about my own values"--the first category identified above].)
Again, my goal is not to take sides, but rather to point out another instance of ELS's potential to advance a substantive policy discussion. In short upcoming posts I'll try to identify some empirical research relevant to each of the five objections above.