What Does The Government Have To Do With New Year’s Resolutions?

Taylor Crane Rodrigues

This year millions of Canadians made New Year’s resolutions to better themselves. Some resolved to stop gambling or smoking. Others committed to lose weight, eat healthier, or save more money. Unfortunately, more than half are likely to have given up on their resolutions within six months.

Some will give up for good reasons. They might have been overly critical of their body when they committed to losing ten pounds, or realize they value spending time with their friends and family more than exercising. But many, including me, make sincere New Year’s resolutions and are disappointed when they fail to keep them. I want to exercise more this year and eat healthier than I did last year—and the government has an interest in my success. The healthier I am, the less likely I am to use healthcare resources or drop out of the labour force.

A Brief History of Traditional Paternalism

Governments commonly prohibit individuals from harming others. Murder, assault, theft, and fraud are obviously illegal. But governments also regulate and prohibit actions that don’t harm third parties. Traditional government paternalism limits the public’s autonomy—against their will—in order to make the public better off, as judged by the government. Past Western governments have criminalized pre-marital sex between consenting adults, homosexuality, and practicing non-dominant religions because they thought doing so would help the public lead “good Christian lives.” Currently, Canadian governments force the public to wear seatbelts, mandates workers to contribute to the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) and Employment Insurance, and prohibits the public from using recreational drugs, such as marijuana to make them “better off.” [1]

imageForcing people to save for retirement and prohibiting them from smoking marijuana makes some people better off by restricting them from splurging and smoking—but it also makes some people worse off. Some people would rather not contribute to the CPP and would willingly trade increased present consumption for a more modest retirement. Marijuana users knowingly accept marginal lung damage to enjoy a relaxing joint. Can traditional paternalist policies still be justified in a modern liberal democracy?

Enter Libertarian Paternalism

Libertarian paternalism presents a different way of thinking about government intervention. “It tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off as judged by themselves,” says Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness.

This policy philosophy has two main tenets. First, people should generally be “free to choose.” They should be able to opt out of public policies if doing so doesn’t harm others. Second, it is legitimate for private and public institutions to try to influence people’s behaviour to make them better off, as judged by the individuals. Institutions shouldn’t impose on individuals their conception of the “good life.”

A government taking a traditional paternalism approach would force all workers to enroll in a pension plan because it assumes that doing so would make most (or all) workers better off. Conversely, libertarian paternalism recognizes that most, but not all, workers want to join a pension plan. A  government taking this approach would make enrollment opt-out. Individuals would be enrolled in the pension plan by default, but could easily choose to leave the plan.

Traditional paternalism would advocate bans on marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes and all other recreational drugs because it assumes that the public values their health more than bodily pleasure. In contrast, libertarian paternalism would advocate the legalization and regulation of recreational drugs, and educate the public so they could make an informed decision on whether to use them.

Bringing it back to New Year’s resolutions

The government has an interest in helping the public keep their New Year’s Resolutions—and the power to do so.

The government could take a traditional paternalist approach and ban cigarettes and gambling to help smokers and gamblers quit, but doing so would deprive the casual smoker and gambler from some of life’s small pleasures.

Alternatively, it could embrace libertarian paternalism and choose policies that help people keep their resolutions without harming those who don’t want to change their behaviour.

In the 1990s, gambling was ruining thousands of lives in Missouri. Some gamblers wanted to quit but couldn’t resist the allure of the riverboat casinos. In response, Missouri introduced a novel policy: allow gamblers to permanently ban themselves from the casinos. More than 14,000 people have signed up for the program and it has been relatively effective at stopping compulsive gamblers from gambling while still allowing casual gamblers to enjoy themselves.

image-2The Public Health Agency of Canada, in collaboration with some provinces, has funded Carrot Rewards, a smartphone app that incentivizes Canadians to eat healthier and exercise more. App users get Aeroplan® miles, SCENE® points or other small rewards for answering health quizzes, recording their steps on a pedometer and self-reporting healthy behaviour.

Blanket bans and requirements have a place in every policymaker’s toolkit, but they are crude tools. Opt-out programs, voluntary restrictions, incentive programs, and other policy nudges are more precise and targeted in nature. They can take the guesswork out of some policymaking, and empower citizens to make the choices that make them best off.

[1] In a country with socialized healthcare, individuals who engage in relatively high-risk behaviour such as drinking alcohol or smoking might be seen to be harming others by using a disproportionate amount of healthcare resources. Governments commonly tax recreational drugs in part to prevent this issue.

Taylor Crane Rodrigues is a 2017 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and a Certificate in Ethics with Distinction from the University of Western Ontario. His professional interests include fiscal policy, health policy, environmental policy and libertarian paternalism.

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