Comparative Institutional Analysis and the New Paternalism
| Peter Klein |
Comparative institutional analysis — defined as the assessment of feasible organizational or policy alternatives — is at the heart of the new institutional economics. Most economists and management scholars recognize, at least implicitly, that individuals and organizations don’t think, act, and choose with reference to some kind of global optimum, but are always evaluating trade-offs among imperfect alternatives. Yet, when it comes to public policy, even trained economists and strategy scholars easily lapse into Nirvana mode. Recent examples discussed her at O&M include the debate over Fed independence, the role of financial regulators more generally, and the “soft” or “libertarian” paternalism favored by Obama’s man Cass Sunstein, among others.
The new paternalism literature suggests that private actors suffer from biases and cognitive limitations such as lack of willpower or self-control, status quo bias, optimism bias, and susceptibility to framing effects leading them to make decisions that are inconsistent with their own preferences. By making marginal changes to the options available to market participants (“nudges”), the private benefits and costs of various actions, and the informational environment in which choices are made, market participants can be led to make “better” choices without reliance on heavy-handed, top-down regulation. The problem, of course, is that this literature virtually ignores the cognitive and behavioral limitations affecting policymakers. Incentive problems are an obvious example, along with the “slippery-slope” problem: the vulnerability of new paternalist proposals “to slippery slopes that can lead from modest paternalism to more extensive paternalism” (Rizzo and Whitman, 2009, p. 667).
Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman’s have written an excellent set of papers on the new paternalism, the latest of which focuses on the knowledge problem, and how dispersed, tacit knowledge about preferences and constraints limits policymakers’ ability to plan paternalist policies that actually make people better off. The paper is here, and Mario blogs about it here. Highly recommended!