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Social Conservatives Attacked for Soft Paternalism

Slate’s Matt Yglesias sees the attempts of Ross Douthat and other social conservatives to incentivize marriage as analogous to Arizona’s SB 1070, a law meant to make the lives of illegal immigrants so awful that they would up and self-deport. He writes:

The big problem with this idea, however, is that it involves deliberate cruelty to innocent people, which is morally wrong. So wrong that you never see conservatives explicitly avow it. Because it’s really obviously wrong to be deliberately cruel to innocent people.

So beyond that, you’re left with … what? Marco Rubio’s idea is that we should reallocate EITC funds to make the program more generous to married parents and less generous to single ones. But per Rubio’s own analysis of the situation, the one-parent families he’s penalizing are worse-off!

Judging by his indignation over Senator Rubio’s tax policy and Ross Douthat’s ideas in Grand New Party, Yglesias seems to view any attempt to penalize an undesired behavior or reward a desired one as necessarily punitive or vicious.

But these policy recommendations resemble the tactics of former Mayor Bloomberg and Nudge author Cass Sunstein. The goal isn’t to punish people for making a bad choice, but to tweak their incentives so far fewer people wind up making the sub-optimal choice in the first place.

Of course, it’s possible to describe any paternalist law as an act of retribution (Cigarette taxes are a deliberate attempt to be cruel to people who are already addicted to a drug, so you wind up using their dependency to take away more of their money and make them worse-off!), but this ignores the fact that cigarette taxes are as much about discouraging potential or casual smokers from taking up a heavy habit as they are about squeezing the drug budget of the two-pack a day set.

When soft paternalists go after quantifiable goals like obesity and sodas sizes, educational attainment and preschool, and retirement savings and tax-sheltered 401(k)s, the modest penalties and incentives usually pass without scandal. But when politicians and pundits try to monkey around with the social and economic costs of a lifestyle choice, the backlash can be enormous.

In his internet-infamous anti-pot column, David Brooks didn’t propose any civil or criminal costs for using marijuana. He tried to marshall the softest kind of paternalism: social censure. Whether or not the current drug laws need reform, he argued, we shouldn’t be approving about more people using marijuana.

But the online backlash seemed to have read a different column, where he had endorsed the Rockefeller drug laws, just as Yglesias seems to think that Douthat favors re-criminalizing adultery, or bringing back the term “bastard” for illegitimate children.

Social conservatives turning to Sunstein-style nudges could help culture war fights approach détente. Negotiating over incentives and pricing externalities means negotiating over the height of the barrier to some questionable activity, not access to the activity altogether. Thus, neither side need treat the question as an existential threat such as in the all-or-nothing legalization/criminalization dichotomies.

Yglesias et al. should welcome this shift in tactics, and recognize it from their own playbook as a moderate way of shaping culture. They should give Douthat and Brooks a small reward for good behavior, rather than trying to delegitimize and disincentivize their approach.

about the author

Leah Libresco is a statistical analyst in a school network. She is a graduate of Yale University and lives in Washington D.C. She is a contributor to Patheos at Unequally Yoked, and her work has also appeared in First Things, The Huffington Post, and Fare Forward. You can follow her on twitter at @leahlibresco.

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