Why don't we find more private contracts as strategies for self-control? Imagine a plan in which employees or students encouraged their employer or law school to make the following kind of offer: “We know that many of your days are sedentary, and we take an interest in your long-term health. We also know that most of you are eager to be fit. We invite you voluntarily to subscribe to our health partnership for three years. As a subscriber you will pay $2,000 per year into the plan. At the end of each month if you have met the plan’s goals with respect to weight and perhaps exercise (if it can be monitored, as might visitds to particualr gyms) for the month, you receive $200, so that someone who always makes the goals earns $400 on the $2,000 investment in the course of the year. Someone who misses the goals in two of the months breaks even. If you never meet the monthly goal, you will lose the $2,000 subscription – and you will have signed on to try again with another $2,000 the next year, because the plan runs in three-year cycles. Weight loss and maintenance is, after all, a long term endeavor.”
My guess is that some of us would indeed do better with such an economic incentive, though to guarantee solvency and to make the offer more attractive, the organizer might do well to provide matching funds. Perhaps the government would be modestly involved, and would improve the economic incentives necesarry to overcome self-control problems, by making receipts tax exempt. By and large, even employers (and co-workers) and insurers do not find this worthwhile because they do not expect to be long term insurers; a good part of the added health costs associated with obesity can be expected to materialize many years in the future. Another strategy for government involvement might therefore be to tinker with tax law in order to encourage long-term health coverage so that insurers would have a socially useful time horizon.
In any event, the idea is that many of us know we have self-control problems; we know something is good for us or bad for us (economically or otherwise) but we have trouble doing what we later know we will wish we had done; added economic incentives can help us do what we now know we "should" do. Self-control is not the same as paternalism. I might promise my kids prizes if they read good books, but that (parentalism) is not the same as my wishing cigarette taxes to be very high in order to reduce the chances that I will take up smoking.
My larger claim is that as a positive matter we regularly find government intervening in ways that can best be described as intermediation on behalf of self control. But there is also an important public choice component. Many citizens want to stop smoking, many think they would not save enough for retirement without "extra" incentives, many would not go to college even though they read of that sound investment, many would not buy cars with airbags, and so forth. In many cases where self control (between the present and future self) is an issue, where monitoring and contractual enforcement is feasible, and where interest groups line up in a way that makes self-control-through-government attractive (to some organized interest groups), we find government involvement. When the weight of interest group power is opposed to such self-control, it is less likely for the government to get involved, and this may be why we should not expect much in the way of obesity regulation. But more on interest groups in another posting.