Regulation for Conservatives: Behavioral Economics and the Case for 'Asymmetric Paternalism'
Columbia Law and Economics Working Paper No. 225
44 Pages Posted: 29 Apr 2003 Last revised: 10 Nov 2010
Date Written: April 1, 2003
This paper examines the regulatory implications of behavioral economic insights. The central effect of behavioral economics in the legal literature to date has been to challenge the premise of formal economic theory that individuals understand their preferences and work to maximize these preferences. Behavioral economics has gathered increased attention in the economic analysis of law because of its demonstration that individual decisionmaking is prone to numerous biases and heuristics, and that as a result individuals may not act to realize their best interests. Part of the enthusiasm for behavioral economics in the legal literature has come from the apparent compatibility of the behavioral insights with proposals for paternalistic regulation. By pointing out some of the ways that human behavior falls short of perfect rationality, behavioral economics can potentially expand the scope of beneficial paternalistic policies that constrain individual choice. However, such policies should be implemented cautiously, given differences in opinion about what behaviors are irrational and concerns about costs imposed on people who are rational. In response to these concerns, we propose a principle for developing and evaluating regulatory policies that we term "asymmetric paternalism." Asymmetrically paternalistic regulations benefit those who would otherwise make poor decisions, but impose little or no costs on those who behave optimally. As such, they challenges both opponents and supporters of regulation by setting forth a disciplined set of criteria by which to judge the costs and benefits of regulatory proposals. The article explores the application of this principle to several specific sources of flawed decision making identified by behavioral economics in such diverse areas as retirement savings, consumer protection, and family law, and suggests examples of already existing regulations in these fields that seem to embody the principle of asymmetric paternalism.
Keywords: behavioral economics, regulation, paternalism
JEL Classification: K00, K10, D11, D81, D90
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation