Thursday, December 17, 2009

Paternalism on Campus

Professor Mankiw emailed me:

"I have no recollection of the events you recount. One thing I am sure
about is that I have always encouraged motivated undergraduates to take
the 2010 sequence. (I took the equivalent courses when I was an
undergraduate at Princeton.) It is possible that a student who
refused to do problem sets, etc., would seem insufficiently motivated to
me. But I cannot recall ever ejecting, or even trying to eject, an
undergraduate on those grounds.

On libertarianism and paternalism: I think there are some situations in
which paternalism is called for. Indeed, when students come to Harvard,
they are voluntarily subjecting themselves to the rules set by the Harvard
faculty. If I did not impose some rules as a faculty member, I would
not be doing my job.

There are schools with fewer rules--that is, less paternalism. Brown
comes to mind. Harvard has more rules. My guess is that you knew that
when you chose to come to Harvard. By coming, you agreed to a particular
set of rule, and we agreed to impose them. So paternalism within the
university is just our living up to a voluntarily agreed contract. The
same argument does not apply to governments, especially centralized
governments. (You might apply the argument to local governments, as it
is easy to move from town to town.)


PS Feel free to post this if you wish."

I totally agree with Professor Mankiw's thinking about competing groups. People voluntary join groups that impose rules, and have the option to join some other group with an alternate set of rules. For example, I chose to become a grad student at the Univ of Chicago instead of a grad student at Harvard.

But I guess we remember 1989 a little differently.


Anonymous said...

Greg is right about paternalism -- in the original post you seem to equate "libertarian" and "libertine." Libertarianism, as traditionally understood, is a set of beliefs about the proper role of the state, and is agnostic about the role of private hierarchies. Small point.

Anonymous said...

There are also schools that are less "paternalistic" than others. For example, the University of Chicago and Columbia have a "common core" which subjects undergraduates to all manner of things they would not normally choose to take. Although there are benefits to be gained by such an approach, the costs are clear: a lack of spontaneity and individuality in choices. I would be bored out of my mind by such as system.

Organizations and Markets is correct. The term "libertarian" is continually misused by some people,including Sunstein and Thaler. It does not refer to activity within the private sphere.

Mario Rizzo

Anonymous said...

I do recall the event and I remember it exactly as Casey explains it. However, I'd say that Greg had little to do with this: it was mostly Susanto (the TA) who tried to apply the rules strictly without recognizing that Casey's extraordinar talent called for an exception.