Home > Fallacies, libertarians, philosophy of science > I can order a Large, an Extra Large and a Grande, but not a Small

I can order a Large, an Extra Large and a Grande, but not a Small

Adam Ozimek has issued a challenge to paternalists everywhere. If paternalists support Bloomberg’s attempt to ban too large sodas, where does the slippery slope of intervention end?

OK, I’ll bite. Now I don’t consider myself to be a paternalist (although I’m sure that Adam would see me as such), and to be frank, I find the entire “paternalism” debate to be dumb and completely self-serving for libertarians.  Now, on to the argument (in list form)!

First, let me say that as far as specific policy is concerned, I’m ambivalent at best over the proposed ban.   I would prefer a system of graduated taxes on large sugary drinks… say, proportional to the square of the total sugar content and paid by the firm so that the tax is incorporated into the posted price the costumer sees.

  1. Adam makes a lot of the slippery slope of government intervention, but what about the slippery slope of the market without intervention?   What do I mean?   Well, read the title of the post.   Seriously, many if not all places I go these days don’t even offer a “small” size anymore.  Why?   Doesn’t this all make the large a small?   Well, yes… and no.    I think what we are seeing is the interaction of two different effects.  First, (likely for evolutionary reasons) humans have a bias for larger portion sizes–often larger than maximizing ex-post satisfaction would imply (i.e. you feel over-full).   Should government intervene to prevent that?   Maybe yes, maybe no.   It depends whether there is a compelling public policy issue involved (in this case there is).   The other effect is price discrimination.   Firms can extract a small amount of extra surplus from larger portion sizes.   Should government intervene to prevent that? Yes.  Not always, but often it should.   The two effects interact in a nasty way, large portions lead to higher demand (because we keep wanting to over-stuff ourselves) which leads to more price discrimination and larger portions; that interaction strengthens the case for intervention.
  2. Is there a compelling social rationale?   Yes, there is.   You may be tempted, like Adam, to believe that obesity is a personal choice and nothing more.   That’s not true, though.   The point has been made many times by those with more expertise than I, but it can’t be reiterated enough: if you are obese, you increase healthcare costs to the rest of us.   Now, when you buy a car, you also increase the (car-buying) costs for the rest of us, but when you buy a car, you are buying a car–you are PAYING the cost that you are inflicting on the rest of society.   When you get fat, to be frank, you are NOT paying the full social cost of that choice.   This is not quite a classic externality–the problem is that society would (likely) not bear the policy choice of charging the obese more for healthcare.   In an abstract sense, it would be more efficient to just charge these people for the harm they cause, but that’s not the world we live in.   As a second best solution, then, society just… encourages… thinness.   That’s not an ideal solution, but we’re in the realm of the second best.
  3. OK, so what about that slippery slope of intervention?   Hogwash.   This is why you sound like an idiot (which Adam is not) when you make slippery slope arguments.   Why?   There are several reasons.   I’ll return to this but the short of it is that (I can’t reiterate this enough) slippery slope arguments, as a class, are fallacious.   I also think they’re telf-serving for libertarian-types as well, since any “intervention” can be labeled as a “slippery slope” and therefore “bad” on only the shoddiest of reasoning.   So, we should not intervene, right?   Well, no, but I’ll get to that.   Even when a “slippery slope” isn’t just sloppy analysis, there is never, ever a logical reason to abandon an intervention for the sole reason that there is a “slippery slope”.   As I say, I’ll return to this, for now I’m just making an assertion.
  4. Where to stop with the interventions?   How much is too much?   That’s easy.   You stop intervening when the political system says to stop.   That’s what the political system is there for, so use it.   Not every problem can be solved in the market.

So, that’s my basic response.   Bloomberg’s is not the best response (I’m guessing) but I’m willing to see how it goes if no one tries something more promising (like using some kind of Pigouvian tax).   And I think there’s nothing inherently wrong about at least trying to address obesity with public policy.

I would add that I find Adam’s position at least as “paternalistic” as mine.   After all, when he advocates for “free markets” (whatever that means exactly… but it’s amazing how often “free” means “what is best for rich people”) he’s implicitly saying that he knows what is best for the rest of us.   What I really want, for example, is to buy food that I know is safe–and that may not be possible if we deregulate the food industry.   My buying of unsafe food does not mean ipso facto that I prefer unsafe food if I do not have an alternative.

I would argue, instead, that “paternalism” is just another word for policy advocacy.   I am an advocate.   Adam is an advocate.   So we are both “paternalists”, though neither of us would us that word to describe ourselves.   We advocate for different things, which each of us believe is in the best interests of the rest of the nation.    That’s the way its supposed to work.   By calling people (who he doesn’t agree with) names (i.e. “paternalistic”), he is debasing the conversation–attempting a kind of preemptive ad hominem.

At any rate, I promised I would detail why the slippery slope is always a dumb argument.   First, a point of terminology; when discussing the “slippery slope” I logically separate the problem into the “slope” (i.e. the proposed policy change) and the “slip” (the asserted tendency for the proposed change to propagate itself).   Logically speaking, you need both the slip and the slope to make a “slippery slope”, although in practice most people ignore the later.

  1. Gradualism:   Even if the “slippery slope” analysis of a policy  is sound, we should never use this fact, in and of itself, as a reason to reject that policy.  Nearly all good policy is developed through a process of gradual improvement.   You tweak existing institutions, you do not create institutions whole from out of the aether.  To reject policy because that policy admits to reform would eliminate this option.   Instead, all policy changes would need to be revolutionary and more important, those changes would need to be right–there is no prospect of feedback.   This is an impossible bar to cross; for libertarians, that’s the point.
  2. Democracy:  Suppose a policy is implemented and once it is, it becomes generally accepted by the public.   The public wishes for more improvements.   This, incidently, summarizes the example that Adam cites.   I say, “the policy admits reform”, Adam says “slippery slope!”   Here’s the thing.   The slip in this slope is the fact that people like the policy and want more.   Adam says that the existence of this slip is reason to avoid the slope; doesn’t anybody else notice the anti-democratic implications of that?   If Adam concedes the slip, then he is conceding that the policy will be popular–policies propagate through the political, i.e. democratic, process not through asexual reproduction.
  3. Experimentation:   Not enough of a reason to make policy changes on its own, but combined with points (1) and (2) its reasonable, I think, to imagine that policy improvements are possible and something is learned from each reform.   If we are gradual enough about continued reforms there is no reason to think that the costs (i.e. reforms that don’t quite work) would be greater than the potential benefits and because we learn something from each reform it is reasonable to think that society should on average be willing to attempt reforms which it expects on average to fail (what we learn has option value).    What Adam calls a slippery slope, I call exploring the policy parameter space–and you can never be sure about the peaks and valleys of that parameter space until you explore them.
  4. Induction:   So far, I’ve argued practical issues.   Now, I want to argue pure logic.   The basic structure of a slippery slope (properly used) is this:   A->B->B’->B”->…->C through an induction-like process where each step is shown to be inevitable.  As used in the real world, however, the invocation of a slippery slope has the structure A->B and so C (which is presumably bad).   This is pure non-sequitur.   The sequence of events between B and C, in short, is missing. You mister slippery-slope need to spell out not only the slope (B and C) but the slip (why the sequence leading to C must continue all the way to C).   The slope may be wrong (A leads to outcome D, not C) and the slip may terminate long before C.

I’m sick of hearing about slippery slopes.  Please stop, or at least do your due diligence and show your work through its logical steps.

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