Erik Matson on Adam Smith, David Hume, and the New Paternalists

welfare libertarian paternalism free will rationality

May 10, 2024


What would Adam Smith and David Hume say about mandatory savings accounts or calorie counts on menus? Does their 18th century understanding of rationality have anything in common with today's paternalists? 
 Erik Matson is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the Deputy Director of the Adam Smith program. He recently released a new book, New Paternalism Meets Older Wisdom: Looking to Smith and Hume on Rationality, Welfare, and Behavioral Economics. Today we talk about paternalism, and how new paternalists differ from classic paternalists and how this arose. We talk about the difficultly of knowing one’s own preferences and how important freedom and choice are to the discovery of the good life and how to obtain it.





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Juliette Sellgren
Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition. Hi, I'm Juliette Sellgren, and this is my podcast, the Great Antidote- named for Adam Smith, brought to you by Liberty Fund. To learn more, visit www Adam Smith works.org. Welcome back Today, April 19th, 2024. I'm excited to invite Erik Matson to the podcast to talk about his new book, which is called New Paternalism Meets Older Wisdom: Looking to Smith and Hume on Rationality, Welfare and Behavioral Economics. The title explains itself. It's pretty long but it explains itself. [Matson is a Senior Research Fellow] at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the deputy director of the Adam Smith program there. Welcome to the podcast.

Erik Matson 
Thanks Juliette. It's great to be here.

Juliette Sellgren 
So before we jump into the new paternal and the older wisdom, what is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don't?

Erik Matson (1.10)
So you sent this question to me in advance and I thought about it for a while and I couldn't come up with anything in particular. So I listened to a number of your other guests to see what they said and they said many interesting and important things. Well, actually, let me say the first thing I thought when you asked me this question was what generation are you in? Which I guess is Gen Z, is that right? Yeah, Gen Z. Gen Z. And so Gen Z is people born after 2000, is that right?

Juliette Sellgren 
I think it's 97 or 98 to

Erik Matson 
2005.

Juliette Sellgren 
It's something kind of random.

Erik Matson 
So I looked up Gen Z and I said, okay, 2000. And then I realized I'm not so far from Gen Z myself, so I feel a little odd addressing the so-called the younger generation. So I'm a late millennial, I was born in the early nineties, so in some respects I'm not that far ahead of Gen Z. And then I thought about things that I think everybody should know and ways that I think everybody should think that happen to be close to the ways that I think and the things that I believe. But of course, I'm not just going to tell everybody that they should think. I think, and I thought of this quote eventually in this book, Fear and Trembling by the Danish philosopher, Soren [Kierkagaard]. So lemme just read this. So here's the quote from this is in the epilogue of the book, Fear and Trembling

Whatever one generation learns from another, no generation learns the essentially human from a previous one. In this respect, each generation begins, has no task other than what each previous generation had, nor does it advance further insofar as the previous generations did not portray the task and see themselves be essentially human is passion in which one generation perfectly understands another and understands itself. For example, no generation has learned to love from another. No generation is able to begin at any other point than at the beginning. Later generation has a more abridged task than the previous one. 

So the idea here is that in some fundamental sense, each generation has the same task and starts over. And so each generation has to learn what it means to be human. Each generation has to learn what it means to love and to pursue the good. And my hope for my generation and for your generation and for all generations is that we take that seriously and pursue life as a calling. And of course, there are many sources of wisdom that we can look to help us in that endeavor. So that's all to pass on to your generation and to communicate to myself and my own generation, this sense that we all have this task to understand what it means to be human, what it means to pursue the good, and to cultivate the virtues and in our particular contexts.

Juliette Sellgren 
That's a great piece of advice and a great quote also.

Erik Matson 
It is a great quote. 

Juliette Sellgren 
It sounds like something I should read.

Erik Matson 
Yeah, it's a deep work and it's a very difficult work and I won't pretend to have a great grasp of, I mean, I read it years ago, but I just remember that epilogue. And so when I was thinking about what to say about previous generation or what to say to my own generation, even that sort of jumped out at me from deep in the back of my mind.

Juliette Sellgren (5.12)
Yeah, and it's funny because I was thinking about this the other day. I was teaching in principles of macro, we're learning the Phillips Curve, and so I'm teaching my students about this short run inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment and how in the long run it doesn't work. But how if you look at years in sequence, there are certain years where it follows this trend and you can see you're along the curve, but then you realize there are a bunch of different Phillips Curves and you never stay on one. And so the relationship doesn't really exist. Milton Friedman, yada yada, it deserves its own interview and its own exploration. 

But one of my students asked me, it looks as though generationally there's this in the way that in the equilibrium and the curve that you're on, and the way that the relationship not affects those people because each generation, each curve has the same relationship, but you're in a different place. The level of that relationship changes the magnitude of it, all of that. And at the time I was like, yeah, that's kind of a silly thing to say. It doesn't really matter. I guess you might be right, but for whatever reason, this is what I was thinking about while you were talking, that what is true of human beings, because we're still human beings might not change over time, but the pressures that we feel and the circumstances that each generation or each group of people even alive in different generations at the same time will learn those lessons and those truths about ourselves is going to be a little different even if it comes down to being the same thing. And I'm wondering if you think that's me extending this metaphor way too far, or if that sounds to be in line with what you're saying?

Erik Matson (7.05)
I think it's in line. One way to think about what you just said is that human nature exhibits uniformity amidst diversity. So in other words, our historical circumstances change somewhat, but amidst these historical circumstances, the problems that we face, I mean the details of the problems differ, but the moral psychology and the tasks before us are in some sense the same. So we still have to learn how to be virtuous, how to pursue the good, how to deal with the realities of evil, but precisely what those situations look like change slightly from generation to generation. So thousands of years ago, of course, there were different circumstances pursuing the good and avoiding evil looked in some material sense different, but just in terms of the substance or the core, it's still a similar kind of decision. So each generation has the same calling in a general sense, but what it looks like in particular might differ somewhat, if that makes sense.

Juliette Sellgren (8.25)
Yeah, it does. And I think something that's interesting is when we're talking about, as we're going to talk about new paternalism and older wisdom, these are two different times that you're kind of pushing together. And I think with good reason, and we'll get into it obviously, but we're going to kind of see what that looks like. It's not that the older wisdom is irrelevant, but the new paternalism are dealing with some the same things, which is why it's even possible to compare across different periods of time in human history. So let's do that. I want to unpack all these phrases, right? I've been saying them new paternalism could mean transgender fathers, they're new paternal or older wisdom could be wisdom that comes from my mother. She's older than me, she's wise, she passes down her wisdom. And that could be an interesting book. Mothers giving advice to transgender fathers. Sure. That's not what this book is about. That's not the new paternalism and the older wisdom that you're talking about. So in the case of Smith and Hume and economics, what do you mean by new paternalism and how is it different from old paternalism or not paternalism, I guess?

Erik Matson (9.46)
Okay, I dug up this quote from Isaiah Berlin's essay, Two Concepts of Liberty, which I think is a great description of classical paternalism. So here's the quote, 

The sage knows you better than you know yourself, for you are the victim of your passions. A slave living a heteronomous life, pure blind, unable to understand your true goals. You want to be a human being. It is the aim of the state to satisfy your wish. Compulsion is justified by education for future insight. 

So that's the classical paternalism. The idea is that we or some group of people who are in power know what the good is and impose it upon others. So the classical paternal is not concerned with satisfying individual interests as individuals themselves understand them, but is concerned with correcting individuals and coercing them towards the good, which deep down they assume the individuals want, even though the individuals might kick and scream along the way.

So you can think about flogging people into religious conversion or simple outright prohibitions of alcohol and drugs. If I'm the paternal, I say, look, I know you're saying that you want to drink or that you don't want to convert to my religion, but I know that deep down in the depths of your soul, you do want to convert to my religion and you don't want to drink or do drugs or so forth. So that's the old paternalism. And that kind of paternalism, well at least it was turned away from or rejected at least by some in the liberal tradition in the West. And of course there was an embrace, which I think still exists to a large extent. There was an embrace of the individual and individual pursuit of happiness, the idea that individuals discern the good for themselves. Smith of course talked about each man pursuing his interest, his own way.

[Thomas] Jefferson
, the Declaration of Independence, wrote of the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So there was a kind of rejection of the old paternalism, the new paternalism emerged out of research in cognitive psychology and behavioral economics starting in around the 1970s. And so some of this research, part of which was spearheaded by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, drew attention to our tendency to make errors and our inability to actually pursue our interests in a consistent rational manner. And so lots of evidence was accumulated drawing attention to our failures, our irrationalities are exuberance. And then the claim came forward that we might actually be able to help people help themselves that has enabled people to do what people say they actually want to do through various kinds of policies or various kinds of choice architecture. And it's a kind of intuitive idea.

If you want go to bed, if you want to wake up early, you set an alarm clock. The alarm clock helps you wake up early, even though yourself in the morning you might want to sleep in. So that's a kind of simple example. But the new paternalism really came forward in the early two thousands as a set of policy proposals informed by this research and cognitive psychology and behavioral economics. And the idea again, is that we can actually use public policy to help people help themselves. So it's a paternalism of means in a sense. It's not a paternalism of ends, it's claims. So we're not telling people that they need to do X or they need to do Y, but we're observing what people seem to want to do themselves, and we're arranging choices in a way that help them do the things that they actually want to do. So old paternalism, I know what's good for you. I'm going to force you to do it. New paternalism, what's good for you? I'm going to help you do it. That's the simplest way to make the distinction, I think.

Juliette Sellgren 
And there are lots of different names and you talk about them in the book, and it might even be more excess with other names like libertarian paternalism or regulation for conservatives, things like that.

Erik Matson (14.54)
Yeah. The most famous I think is libertarian paternalism, which is of course associated with Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The most famous work is their book Nudge, which I think first came out in 2008 and the final edition was published in 2021. So yeah, libertarian paternalism, or if you want to associated it with some particular authors, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein the most famous, but they're by no means the only ones.

Juliette Sellgren 
So I don't know, it strikes me this idea of libertarian paternalism because it's kind of an oxymoron. When I say kind of, I mean complete, but what strikes me even more is that you can also have conservative paternalism, but they're not old. They're new paternalism and that you get people from the left and libertarian leanings that are attracted to new paternalism. And that's kind of different from before, I think at least. So what type of person is attracted to new paternalism and how does that lead to weird justifications like, oh, but it's libertarian, so it's fine. How does that work?

Erik Matson (16.11)
Well, I'm not exactly sure what kinds of people are attracted to new paternalism, but I think a lot of people who are attracted to new paternalism are the kinds of people who didn't mind old paternalism. But it just so happens that now we have evidence from cognitive psychology that shows us beyond a shadow of a doubt that people are irrational. So the old paternalism can become new paternal simply by grabbing onto some of that evidence. I don't know, but what kinds of people are attracted to it as far as libertarian paternalism, whether it's an oxymoron? There were many reactions to the idea of libertarian paternalism, and I think one of the articles, one of the early articles was libertarian paternalism is an oxymoron. And then Sunstein and Thaler responded and said, no, it's not an oxymoron. And part of their response is that choice architecture is in a sense unavoidable, like setting a default is unavoidable. And so if that's the point, then of course everyone is a choice architect and all policy regulations can be thought of as setting up a choice framework, which is an interesting point, but I don't think that quite answers the objection.

Juliette Sellgren 
Yeah, I mean, it's maybe true that we have a default based on who is supplying something, a grocery store, for example, and what do people want? And so what is best selling? Where are you going to put it? But that's dependent on an aggregate, and so I don't know.

Erik Matson (18.03)
Well, that's the key question is what do people want? What do people want? It's easy enough to put in place regulations and change defaults that lead to different kinds of outcomes. If you regulate defaults so that people are automatically organ donors, or if you regulate defaults so that people are automatically enrolled in savings accounts or in retirement contributions, you can change outcomes in those things. But the question is whether or not that's helping people do what people themselves want to do. And so that's sort of the heart, the new paternalism claims, and it's helping people do the things that they want. Otherwise we simply have regulation informed by behavioral research, which is fine, but then you have to justify the regulations not on slightly different grounds or on very different grounds that these are good regulations. For this reason, the new paternalism want to justify some of those regulations by saying, people want this. We're helping people do what people themselves want. And so that's the real problem.

Juliette Sellgren (19.13)
Yeah. I know this is probably more of a minor critique, and I want to get into the bigger, older wisdom critiques and ways to kind of argue against this, but something that strikes me is that especially being in college and being in this environment that we say is more conducive to forcing you to learn what you want and figure out what you want out of life by giving you freedom and responsibility and all of that, part of the way that you figure out what you like and what you actually want is by not floundering necessarily, but by putting in the work, you can't really say what your preferences are, even if you've worked to figure out what your preferences are, I guess is what I would say. But also how do you know what you want if you've never been in that environment, if you've never struggled a little bit or faced new constraints? And so to think that we could figure out the defaults ahead of time that are more conducive to what people want when they themselves don't know, I struggle with this idea.

Erik Matson (20.17)
Yeah, I agree. And that's an important part of the points that I make in the book. To learn what you want, you have to experiment, and you also have to make mistakes. It's difficult to grow without error and without some kinds of inconsistencies. I actually about some similar kinds of things, and I was reflecting on your first question about what sorts of things would I like to communicate to the previous generation? And one of the reasons why I struggled with that is because so many of the things that I've learned over the years, I don't think I could have just learned if somebody gave me a book and said, here, these are the things that you are going to learn and you should just internalize. Now, these convictions have been the product of life experience, which has involved different kinds of failings and errors. But I think those failings and errors are really just vital in life and in learning what it means to live a good life and become the person that you want to be, knowledge issues that we'll get into. I think it's sort of inappropriate to just sort of assume that we know what people want, and even if we do know what people want, should we just set that before them and push them in that direction? No, because I think there's a lot to be said for going through, struggling towards whatever ends you discover that you want yourself.

Juliette Sellgren (22.01)
Yeah, no, I totally agree. I was actually having this conversation with my mom the other day. We were talking about the first question and what I've learned over the past few years doing this and asking this, and we kind of reached this conclusion, which was, even though it doesn't necessarily change my behavior from the beginning, you still have to learn those lessons.

You will have heard it. And so when you mess up, the sounding board within you includes the advice that people give in response to the first question, and that it comes at weird moments and that it sinks in at different times. But you can't internalize it just by hearing it once or twice or it being a rule. You have to have an experience that allows you to have an insight into either the truth or I guess agreement or disagreement you have with that piece of advice. You can have it in your mind, but until you've played it out in real time or have it to fall back on, it doesn't really matter. Right?

Erik Matson 
Right. Yeah,

Juliette Sellgren 
This is in a way,

Erik Matson 
Go ahead.

Juliette Sellgren 
No, no. I was just going to say advice in a way, and wisdom is an investment into someone else. It's sowing the seeds for something in the future. And I think this kind of connects, right? Because if you have a rule, you're not sowing the seeds. Sure. Institutions are really important to the way people behave, but again, I really have a strong conviction that intention is important, and that can't be true when you don't ask people to think or experience to figure certain things out.

Erik Matson (23.43)
Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I was going to bring up a point about just my own upbringing, and I grew up in a religious home, and for a long time I just sort of said, okay, I need to sort of take these truths for granted. But of course, they didn't mean so much to me when I just took them for granted in that way. It wasn't until much later after I'd sort of lived and put them to the test that I came to realize that they were actually things that I sort of believed in. And it's the same thing with all kinds of truths and lessons. You can hear the lesson, but until you actually need to see it in action or trust in it or put it into play yourself, it's less real to you and it's less meaningful.

Juliette Sellgren 
Could you give us maybe an example of a default as it is without paternalism, what the classic paternal would do to change that and what the new paternalism would do in contrast maybe?

Erik Matson (24.51)
Well, I mean, one example is savings. So there's this idea that we continue to inappropriately discount the future, and we put way too much stock on the present. And this leads to a number of problems. One of the problems is that it leads us to under save, so we don't save because we just want to enjoy the present and we end up under saving. And so then we're old and we get ready to retire, and we don't have anything left. So one solution to that is we can, so the classical paternal solution is, look, we're going to force you to save more whether you like it or not. And you actually see policies like that in places like Australia, forced savings. The new paternalistic approach is, well, let's regulate the default such that you're automatically enrolled in a retirement account at a reasonably high contribution rate. And since people sort of tend to stick with the status quo, they won't unenroll to lead them to save another,

Juliette Sellgren 
And maybe more will become relevant as we keep going. Yeah. So onto the older wisdom, why is it older wisdom and not old wisdom, and what sort of a wisdom is that?

Erik Matson (26.17)
Well, it's older in the simple sense that I'm drawing on thinkers from the 18th century. So why is it not old wisdom? I have friends who work in church history and they joke with me all the time that a history of economics goes back to Adam Smith. And economists think that really doing deep history, and they go back to the 18th century, which of course to church historians and to people who say, study the Old Testament, that's like yesterday. So it's not old wisdom in some basic sense. It's just older. It's still part of the modern period. It's only a couple hundred years old, but it is older then the movements that we've been discussing under the title of the new paternalism. So what was the second part of your question?

Juliette Sellgren 
What sort of a wisdom is that? So Smith and Hume, obviously, what wisdom do they have as it relates to paternalism and how is it different between the classic paternalism and the new paternalism?

Erik Matson (27.26)
Well, I just draw from Smith and Hume. I mean, I use their writings to reflect on rationality, the notion of rationality, what it looks like to behave in a reasonable manner. And I also use their ideas to think about welfare. And so if you think philosophically about the new paternalism and you think philosophically about behavioral economics, I think those are obviously, I think the two big concepts that we need to wrestle with. What does it mean to be rational and what is welfare? And how you answer those two questions matters a lot for how you interpret experimental results in behavioral economics or cognitive psychology and also what you think should be done. And so for Smith and for Hume, I suggest that, well, so basically I look at some of the criticisms of the new paternalism, especially criticisms that have been put forward by Mario Rizzo and Glenn Whitman.

And I say, look, rationality is much broader than many of the new paternal think. It's not simply about acting in a consistent fashion. Rationality can often involve inconsistency because like we were talking about a few minutes ago, life is about discovering what you want and who you want to be. And that necessarily will involve some inconsistency. So if we observe somebody saying they want to do one thing at time A and then doing something different in time B, it doesn't mean that they're foolish. It doesn't mean that they're irrational necessarily. They might be, but it could indicate that the person is growing and learning, or as John Stuart Mill might've put it, experimenting in living. And so what I do is I pull formulations from especially Smith on this point, but also Hume to some extent, and corroborate that line of thinking and sort of reflect on why for Smith inconsistency is consistent with being reasonable.

And then I look at Hume a bit more on what welfare actually might be. And I think we all know that welfare is about more than preference satisfaction. So welfare is about becoming, it's about pursuing, it's less about satisfying a static set of preferences and much more about developing your preferences and shaping yourself into the kind of person you want it to be. And so if you take these ideas together, I think it's a reasonably strong critique against some aspects of the new paternalism, which have been raised again by people like Mario Rizzo and Glenn Whitman. So in some sense I just sort of pile on to what they've done and sort of edify some of their analysis with lines from these old thinkers.

Juliette Sellgren (30.38)
So something I found super fascinating was the fact that Smith and Hume have in a way been co-opted by the new paternal. Sometimes they talk about Smith and Hume in a lot of the same ways. There's this debate over Smith and the Navigation Acts- listeners, go listen to my many numerous episodes on the Jones Act. I love to talk about that on here, but you have a lot of people that are for protectionism using Smith to defend that. And it's really interesting because it shows that I guess there's a value to these thinkers that everyone can agree on that even if the majority of their work disagrees with what you're saying, you're going to use their name in defense of your stance. So how do the new paternal use Smith and Hume in their justifications of this, and is that really a justified claim that they would agree? Are they right?

Erik Matson (31.42)
Well, on the one hand, Smith and Hume observed different, how should we say, quirks in human behavior or different sort of characteristics of human action that resonate with findings in modern psychology. I list a number in the book, but they obviously recognize that we don't act like 20th century neoclassical economic agents. And so that's clear. You can find sensitivity in their writings to what's now called the endowment effect. You can find that they clearly understood that we value gains and losses asymmetrically. They clearly understood that we're biased towards the present, and we can exhibit time inconsistency in our preferences. We have self-command problems on occasion, actually quite often. So they recognized all these things, and when behavioral economics was developing and coming forth, I think there was great excitement to discover that these new insights were actually anticipated by the fathers of modern economics.

And so that's fine. That I think is valid to make that connection. I think it's very clear, but I think it's another thing to say that Smith and Hume would support the Nudge program or would support behavioral paternalism in the political realm. Now it's a question that can't be answered in some ways because they weren't writing with that in mind. So it's sort of unfair or unwarranted to drag them into these kinds of debates. So it's an open-ended question, but I basically speculate and say, look, given what they say about rationality, either explicitly or implicitly, and given their notions of welfare, wellbeing, given their skepticism about the political process, given their tendency towards, or their preference for decentralization and their presumption for liberty in public policy, I think we can at least think that they would be opposed to some of these policy ideas.

Juliette Sellgren 
So could you give us maybe in the context of an example, something that a new paternal might say, or a policy they might suggest, and then how Smith or Hume might respond, and if the two of them respond differently, what would they focus on in responding to this argument or this suggestion?

Erik Matson 
Yeah.

Juliette Sellgren 
It's kind of a hard question.

Erik Matson (35.05)
Yeah. Well, let me say this. I think , I mean there are a number of policies that have been proposed that are supported by new paternal. You have sin taxes, so-called sin taxes, which are taxes on things like alcohol or tobacco or sugar. There's requirements to post calorie counts on vending machines. So many of these policies, maybe all of them have to do with the classic things that the behavioral or the new paternal are interested in health, wealth, and happiness. So policies or regulations to help people be happier, wealthier, and healthier. So I said calories and vending machines, there's regulations on credit cards and on overdraft, overdraft access, banning or taxing energy, inefficient consumer goods. So all these things have sort of behavioral justifications. Now, lemme just take the sin, taxes, tobacco, alcohol, and sugar. I think one thing that say Smith might say in response to these things, I mean, number one, you have the sort of straightforward kind of libertarianism that you find in some moments in the wealth of nations, how each person should have, should be able to pursue his or her interests and his or her own way.

So there's sort of that. So if you want to smoke, go ahead and smoke. The other thing is that in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, there's a very rich theory of civil society. So if somebody is doing something that is bad for them, we don't need to immediately jump to say, federal regulation. Where's the role of civil society, friendship and community in checking people and in pointing people towards things that are good for them and pointing them away from things that are bad for them. We have this bad tendency, at least in America these days, to jump straight from problems to potential political solutions without really considering the role that civil society, voluntary associations can play in this. And actually it happens that there are some, I mean all the time we take measures to sort of nudge ourselves, so to speak. The simplest example is an alarm clock, but there are also diet plans and we have accountability partners for these sorts of things with friends or different websites. There's actually sort of a small self constraint industry. And so I suspect, I mean, again, this is just open speculation, but if you were to ask Smith about things like this, perhaps you would think along those lines.

Juliette Sellgren (38.06)
So something else, and we've kind of touched on this, is that they have a really hard time. I say that it's hard to actually know what an individual's preference is to have this knowledge that not only they probably don't have, which is why we have this idea of revealed preferences. Because even I don't know what type of candy bar I prefer because I'm not counting every single time I buy a candy bar or consume one or that maybe I say I don't prefer it, but in reality I do because I always choose it. And so how do you even obtain this knowledge?

And it's funny because it seems to be that I'm realizing there's this cost and benefit to every single type of knowing things. So even Smith's style of thinking about the world has its drawbacks, but it also has its benefits. Same thing with behavioral and with this kind of nudging mentality in a lot of ways. It might have some benefits in how do we analyze an individual and their choice set and what they do, but it also has drawbacks, like the fact that you actually can't know and you really can't even ask, even though some economists choose to ask people what their preferences are. And so I don't know, do these older wiser men have anything to say about how we can know that sort of stuff? And if it's possible, and I guess, what are your reservations on that front

Erik Matson 
About knowing what people want

Juliette Sellgren 
And trying to make policy around that? I mean, that in itself seems even if it's okay, really difficult.

Erik Matson (39.53)
Yeah, it is difficult. I think Smith and Hume certainly would say that we can reason about what people want. We can think about human nature and reflect on what people want, given how we understand ourselves. But it's not easy to understand how that hashes out in different circumstances. So to go back again to the very beginning of our conversation, we talked about uniformity amidst diversity. So even if you understand that people want to be healthy and people want to be wealthy and people want to be happy because of course who doesn't want to be healthy, wealthy, and happy, what that actually means in specific context will differ some because there are trade-offs everywhere and how that manifests in individual's lives will look different. So in other words, even if you have some objective notion of the good life and you think that you're convicted that this is the way that people should live and this really is what people would want, even if that's true, it's not easy to understand how that will cash out in different life circumstances so that it's really even still difficult to know how you can regulate somebody towards a better life, especially a life that they themselves choose.

So it's kind of an impossible task. Now, basically what new paternalism ends up doing is proposing a kind of folk theory of the good, which is that, well, people want to diet, people want to lose weight, people want to consume less sugar, people want to drink less, people want to save more people don't want to smoke, and so on and so forth. And that's a folk theory of the good. It's not to say that, I mean, we resonate with that to some extent, but it's not obvious that that is what everybody wants or that everybody understands themselves as wanting those specific things.

Juliette Sellgren (42.03)
Something that I just thought about, as you were saying that is New Year's resolutions. So you have people make New Year's resolutions. A lot of people, probably not everyone, because you know that it doesn't work, but part of the fun of making one is it's not going to work. And either you're fighting against that or you're just doing it for the bit. Because cultural, it would be weird, I would think if regulators came around and said, well, we're going to actually help you and make you stick to it. It’s almost assuming that people don't understand that New year's resolutions fall flat something like 99% of the time,

Erik Matson 
But they do. So many people would be worse off if you had to commit to your New Year's resolutions and then somebody would come around and I dunno, coerce you into keeping them. I think a lot of people would be miserable come like January 15th and would just say, no, no, no, no, I didn't mean it. Please, let me go back. I want to renege on my resolution.

Juliette Sellgren 
Yeah, I think that's a funny thought experiment that really communicates it because it's well known that no one follows through, and yet we do it.

Erik Matson (43.12)
Yeah. Well, the reason why I say that a lot of the new paternalism rests on a kind of folk theorem is because suppose you take the example of the New Year's resolution. So you have the person on January 1st and he's resolved to stop smoking, and then you have the person on January 15th who desperately wants to smoke. So you have a pair of inconsistent preferences. Now, which one of those two represents the real preference? Which one of those two represents the real welfare of the person? Well, of course it's the one who doesn't want to smoke. But why? Why? Well, because that accords with our presuppositions about what people want and should do. But that only follows from a presupposition, like I said, some kind of folk theory of what living a decent good life actually is.

Juliette Sellgren 
Yeah, that's a good point. I wish we had more time. I have so many more questions, but thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I have one last question for you.

Erik Matson 
Of course.

Juliette Sellgren 
What is one thing that you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why?

Erik Matson (44.24)
I thought about this a lot too. I don't know many things. Many things, small things and large things. I'll give you a humorous small thing. When I was in high school, I was in a reggae rock band, and I genuinely thought that reggae rock was the paramount form of musical expression. And I thought that forever I was going to play reggae rock and listen to reggae rock, and I no longer believe that. I don't listen to reggae rock anymore. So I was foolish when I was 18. So that's a very trivial thing that I've reversed my position on French things I used to not be so high on free will. I used to not really believe in free will as a concept I do now. That's a much larger, more significant change in my thinking, but the more I think about it, the more things sort of pop up. But those are two, one, very small one and one very large one.

Juliette Sellgren 
What is a reggae rock song you recommend for us? What was your favorite song?

Erik Matson 
A reggae rock song. I'll give you a band. They're actually pretty good. I still listen to them sometimes. They're called the Expendables.

Juliette Sellgren 
Once again, I'd like to thank my guest for their time and insight. I'd also like to thank you for listening to the Great Antidote Podcast. It means a lot. The Great Antidote is sound engineered by Rich Goyette. If you have any questions, any guests or topic recommendations, please feel free to reach out to me at great antidote@libertyfund.org. Thank you.


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