July 1, 2003
The dark side of paternalism
Often when I'm debating with friends about political issues we determine that at the core of our disagreement is the notion of paternalism. Paternalism is at the heart, I believe, of many left/right debates and it crops up when talking about everything from minimum wages, healthcare, social security, telecommunications, education, and on and on. At one level the argument in favor of paternalism is seductive: there are people who need help, need protection, need society’s support and we have governments to do just that, right? I am not against all forms of paternalism but I believe that far too often thinkers and policy makers only consider the positive side of paternalism: what the government can do to "protect" people without balancing the drawbacks of paternalism. There is rarely an acknowledgement of the tradeoffs involved or a fair anticipation of the unintended consequences. The result has been, to my mind, that many experiments in state paternalism have had the opposite effects. Often, as noted below, when the state uses the rhetoric of protecting the public interest, it instead protects special interests, as the expense of the common good.
So here are some drawback to paternalism what should be considered when that justification is the core reason for an state action:
1) Infringes on personal liberty. Sadly many dismiss the encroachment on personal liberty as the just cause of "protecting" people. It is surely true that we have to sacrifice some of our personal liberties for the sake of protection, but we should never forget that there is always a tradeoff. I may want to try a new drug or medical technique that has been approved safe in Europe, but time after time the FDA prevents people from trying potentially life-saving therapies in order to protect them. Regardless of whether on the whole the FDA's decisions save or cost more lives, the cost of protection is an infringement of personal liberty.
2) Penalizes the responsible for the sake of the irresponsible. Paternalism essentially restricts the individual rights of those who could make responsible choices for the sake of those it is feared will not. This has the unfortunate effect of encouraging, in essence, irresponsible behavior. The same FDA example above applies here: I may do the research and be fully informed, but my informed choice is not respected for the sake protecting those who can’t or won’t inform themselves. So why bother informing yourself? Once we transfer to the state the responsibility of determining what is safe and what is not safe why bother making the determination on our own? State intervention creates a moral hazard. By replacing our own judgment with the state's, we take less and less responsibility for our own actions. If the FDA approves it, well then it must be good to imbibe, eat, implant, or inject—and vice versa. We tend to confuse the law with morality, when they are not the same thing. How many parents feel it is the state's responsibility, not their own, to educate their children? How many people don’t practice responsible investing because they assume that the state will protect them—even from their own idiocy?
3) Central planning and one size fits all solutions often simply don't work. It's seductive to think that broad, single solutions can address all problems equally well, but truth is that they usually improve some circumstances and worsen others. We are a diverse country and live in a complex world, it is rare when something is good for everyone.
4) Even if there is in fact one best way, often all of the information needed to central plan is simply not knowable. Tom Bell, in this essay on copy rights, references "Friedrich A. Hayek, [cf2]Individualism and Economic Order [cf1](Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1948), pp. 77-78. Hayek explains that the knowledge essential for central planning does not exist in concentrated form." Information is diffuse, often dispersed, and always changing. The idea that central planners can always acquire all the information that is needed and make accurate decisions in timely manners that will stand up to changing environments is often faulty. More often that not innovation can solve problems before regulators get around to it.
5) Even if there is one best solution and it can actually be determined, there is no guarantee the those politicians and regulators responsible for imposing the rules will not be unduly influenced by special interests and their own career aspirations, rather than a completely objective pursuit of the public good. Tom Bell refers to this "public choice theory" which "holds, in very brief, that because political actors respond to incentives in the same way that other humans do, we should not assume that political acts aim at promoting the public good. See, for example, James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, [cf2]The Calculus of Consent[cf1] (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press: 1962); Mancur Olson, Jr., [cf2]The Logic of Collective Action[cf1] (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press: 1965)."
Let me repeat that this post is not intended to refute all instances of state paternalism--or in fact ANY instance of state paternalism: that's a subject for another day. My point is simply that there are trade-offs and unintended consequences of paternalism that are too rarely factored in to decision making.
And there are alternatives. Family, friends, churches, non-profits, the Internet, personal responsibility, and even organizations that profit on helping people make wise decisions. All too often the counter to those who oppose paternalism decry leaving it up to "the market." This is a straw man. Paternalists are in essence arguing for someone to "do something" and implicit in their arguments are that the state is the only vehicle that can be counted on to do something. But I just rattled off a list of other entities that can serve as non-state paternalist, but perhaps in a decentralized manner while avoiding many of the problems that I list above.