My friend Matt pointed me to an op-ed piece that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last week. It’s written by George McGovern, a former US Senator and the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, and the topic is economic paternalism. He questions whether it is the government’s role to protect us from ourselves and whether attempts to do so result in more harm than good.
As examples, McGovern cites several of today’s hot topics, including the mortgage crisis, health insurance, and payday lending. It’s worth reading the full article, but here’s the part on payday loans:
Economic paternalism takes its newest form with the campaign against short-term small loans, commonly known as “payday lending.”
With payday lending, people in need of immediate money can borrow against their future paychecks, allowing emergency purchases or bill payments they could not otherwise make. The service comes at the cost of a significant fee — usually $15 for every $100 borrowed for two weeks. But the cost seems reasonable when all your other options, such as bounced checks or skipped credit-card payments, are obviously more expensive and play havoc with your credit rating.
Anguished at the fact that payday lending isn’t perfect, some people would outlaw the service entirely, or cap fees at such low levels that no lender will provide the service. Anyone who’s familiar with the law of unintended consequences should be able to guess what happens next.
Researchers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York went one step further and laid the data out: Payday lending bans simply push low-income borrowers into less pleasant options, including increased rates of bankruptcy. Net result: After a lending ban, the consumer has the same amount of debt but fewer ways to manage it.
His conclusion hits the nail on the head:
Why do we think we are helping adult consumers by taking away their options? We don’t take away cars because we don’t like some people speeding. We allow state lotteries despite knowing some people are betting their grocery money. Everyone is exposed to economic risks of some kind. But we don’t operate mindlessly in trying to smooth out every theoretical wrinkle in life.
The nature of freedom of choice is that some people will misuse their responsibility and hurt themselves in the process. We should do our best to educate them, but without diminishing choice for everyone else.