Of Frogs and Men

Long ago, a scenic river with strong currents was opened to the public. Since then, many have enjoyed swimming there, but seventeen people have drowned. A large sign has recently been erected near the river, but it is currently blank. You’ve been authorized to create the sign that will stand there. Go.

Below are ten possibilities, and the policies they entail.

  1. No Swimming.
  2. No Swimming without a life jacket.
  3. Extremely Dangerous Currents! Swim at your peril.
  4. Danger. 0.000017% of park visitors have drowned here.
  5. Danger. The seventeen drowning victims shown below all died swimming here.
  6. Please consider drowning risks alongside the benefits of swimming.
  7. Please consider benefits of swimming alongside the risks of drowning.
  8. Please use caution when swimming.
  9. Please refrain from swimming 1 hour before and after eating.
  10. Please refrain from eating 1 hour before and after swimming.

I’d suggest that the proper wording depends on many facts that the signs’ creator ought to investigate: What fraction of park visitors go swimming? Were any of the drowning victims wearing life jackets? How many people currently own lifejackets? What is the cost of providing them? How much does wearing one diminish the enjoyment of swimming? Do people generally overestimate their swimming abilities? Is the current deceptively strong at this location? Is there any truth to the claim that swimming on a full stomach is dangerous? If not, should the sign suggest that anyway, since it will discourage overeating, which carries its own risks?

If pressed to paint the sign in question, few of us would choose to leave it blank, and any chosen wording will likely influence swimming decisions. If you don’t choose to construct the sign that you think is best for people overall, what is left? A libertarian might contend that any sign with an explicit prohibition (#1 and #2 in the example above) should be ruled out without feeling compelled to present a quantitative analysis comparing the benefits of additional swimming with the costs of additional drowning. I don’t find this position entirely objectionable, but I doubt many hold it. Would you object to requiring lifejackets if exceptionally comfortable ones could be provided on site at minimal cost?

Moreover, even if #1 and #2 are ruled out on principle, a large set of options remain across which swimming rates (and drowning rates) will vary widely. Indeed, displaying images of the corpses of past drowning victims may be a more effective deterrent than an explicit prohibition. What criterion will be applied to evaluate the alternatives when deciding how strongly to word the sign? To me, the most coherent alternative to paternalism is sadism.[1]

The thrust of Whitman’s essay appears to be that however this sign is worded, it ought to contain a footnote that the chosen wording reflects only the attitudes which currently prevail and which pertain to this specific spot. That footnote would warn that nudges to avoid swimming (or, for that matter, nudges to swim) might gradually metamorphose into ever more intrusive infringements, potentially spilling over into other policy arenas. For example, suppose after deliberation, you selected sign #8. When the sign later needed to be repainted, and you revisited the decision, Whitman predicts that you would choose sign #3 (which you now compare to sign #8 rather than to no sign), and that this process would continue inexorably, until sign #1 was in place. Moreover, once the public had no easy option to cool down on a hot summer’s day, they’d be more favorably inclined to other interventions (e.g., taxes on French fries), until one day in the distant future, we’d exercise our lone remaining option and plug ourselves into the Matrix.

Slippery slopes and other metaphors are evocative and sometimes instructive. But they don’t always provide the best description of the world. We’ve all heard (and many believe) that if you place a frog in a pot of water that is gradually heated, it will cook without ever attempting to get out. The putative logic is that the frog displays small-change tolerance, which makes it relatively easy, through a series of small thermal increments, to induce the unsuspecting frog to remain passive until it succumbs to the heat.

That is a good story. And it is false. Dr. Victor Hutchison summarized experiments testing this claim thusly: “As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will become more and more active in attempts to escape…If the container size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so.”

Perhaps, though, frogs’ thermo-regulatory behavior is more developed than humans’ regulatory-regulatory behavior. But I see no reason to assume so. Returning to the riverbank sign, I see no reason why someone who selected sign #8 would later favor stronger wording. Indeed, the feedback loop I imagine is not positive, but negative — once the sign induces sufficient caution to reduce drowning, the absence of recent drowning deaths would embolden more people to swim, and to regard additional restrictions as more unreasonable.

As a rhetorical parry to an anticipated accusation of paranoia, Whitman cites the historical path of anti-smoking regulations. At first, smoking was banned on airplanes, then later in restaurants and even bars. No doubt this is an example of expanding regulations. Here is another. 1962, the sedative Thalidomide was banned because thousands of children whose mothers took it were born without limbs. In 1972, DDT was added to the list of regulated chemicals because it proved to be highly toxic to birds and fish. Soon thereafter, manufacturers of paint were prohibited from including lead because chronic exposure was found to reduce fine motor skills and lower IQ, and more recently, they’ve banned it from gasoline as well. What will they ban next!? – trichloroethylene?

Whitman poses the challenge of defining (ir)rationality and adjudicating among preferences that conflict within or across time. He challenges those who advocate good health over good food, or patience over impatience, to provide an argument for why such preferences are better. Such questions are not novel, but I agree that they’ve not yet been adequately addressed.

I once had salmonella poisoning (regrettably, regulatory hands had not yet been laid on casino buffets). As I lay at home writhing from stabbing stomach pains, I considered how many days of comparable pain I could endure in lieu of committing suicide immediately. I decided that number was 40. Later, when the pain subsided, I revised the number markedly upward. Was the later number more or less correct? Was my accounting of the pain biased in the “cold” state or in the “hot” state? I’ve reflected on this often but still don’t feel intellectually prepared to answer it. A similar analysis can be applied to decisions regarding food or sex. If a one-time global decision about future opportunities for caloric foods or dalliances was made from a cold state, we might well end up with a life that is too ascetic. As James Branch Cabell memorably quipped “There is no memory with less satisfaction than the memory of some temptation we resisted.”

But an inability to say something conclusive about some choices does not invalidate one’s opinion about others. If model airplane glue briefly excites but then permanently destroys the pleasure centers of the brain, would anyone hesitate to describe another’s decision to huff it as “bad”? If those who say they want to lose weight also report being happier when thin, ought their friends not try to help? If common sense about marginal utility dictates that people save more for old age, and people, in fact, choose to save more under some plans, ought those plans not be available?

I see nothing pernicious about recommending options that appear to be better, nor with favoring one’s own preferences when doing so. If my friend has eaten two dishes at a restaurant and prefers the salmon over the tuna, I hope he has the good manners to recommend it to me. If he’s wrong, I’ll choose the tuna next time.

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[1] It is interesting to consider what a welfare minimizing sign would look like. I propose this: Though leeches and wood ticks are each present at this site, try not to think about these parasites, since both of them can smell fear.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Rise of the New Paternalism by Glen Whitman

    In his lead essay, Glen Whitman argues that “soft” or “libertarian” paternalism lends itself to ever more intrusive regulations in a variety of ways. Some of these are due to the very cognitive biases that advocates of soft paternalism have identified in their own research. For example, behavioral economists note that people exhibit extremeness aversion – a phenomenon in which they avoid what appear to be extreme positions. Yet introducing some amount of paternalism will make more paternalism, rather than less, appear to be the plausible middle ground. The dividing line between “soft” and “hard” paternalism is difficult to find, and Whitman offers many reasons why policymakers will tend toward more and more intrusive paternalism over time.

Response Essays

  • Fear of Falling by Richard Thaler

    Richard Thaler argues that libertarian paternalism does not face any of the dangers that Glen Whitman suggests. Given that policymakers and administrators are commonly forced to set up default rules anyway, it only makes sense to set these up in ways that help the governed individuals to realize their true goals. Given that the problem of choice architecture is unavoidable, Thaler argues that this is a reasonable, mainstream solution.

  • The Dangers of Letting Someone Else Decide by Jonathan Klick

    Jonathan Klick argues that not only is the slippery slope real, but a host of other difficulties lie ahead for libertarian paternalists. While we might find academic behavioral economists sensible regulators, in reality regulations are made by lobbyists and Congressional staffers, whose incentives don’t necessarily lie in the direction of good policy. In the long term, too, allowing people to shift the burden of decision to others will habituate people to not deciding – and stunt their abilities.

The Conversation