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Paternalism Is Not Your Friend

“Those who know what’s best for us must rise and save us from ourselves.”
- Neil Peart

Cass Sunstein recently took to the pages of the New Republic to offer a spirited defense of paternalistic government policies, asserting that our quite understandable objections to the state dictating how we should live are misguided, and that we should embrace the guiding hand of our benevolent masters as we would that of a stern but loving father.

Sunstein adopts a tone of moderation and reasonability, dismissing Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to restrict soft drink sizes as clearly ridiculous, while at the same time drawing no actual distinction between that policy and those which he views as good and just.

The logical fallacies of the piece are numerous, but let’s begin by clarifying that Sunstein is arguing on purely utilitarian grounds throughout. He is unconcerned with the rights of individuals, and merely endorses that which will result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. An opposing view is that humans have certain rights that must not be violated regardless of the welfare effects. Sunstein acknowledges this objection, but dismisses it as a sort of unanswerable trump card not worthy of argument.

While many of us would reject pure utilitarianism as a philosophy, it is not an unreasonable or extreme starting place for discussion, and most of Sunstein’s arguments can happily be dismantled while working within his own frame of reference.

When beginning a discussion, it is always helpful to define one’s terms to avoid confusion. Sunstein helpfully offers a concise definition of paternalism, but unfortunately his very definition seems to undermine his arguments. He says “What seems to unify paternalistic approaches, however diverse, is that government does not believe that people’s choices will promote their welfare, and it is taking steps to influence or alter people’s choices for their own good.”

Now, among the basic axioms of welfare economics are the ideas that people are self-interested and that they will act to increase their own welfare provided they have sufficient information to do so. Indeed, the definition of welfare is something of a tautology. Someone makes a choice because it increases his welfare, and we know that it increases his welfare because he chose it. The notion that government can improve people’s lives by telling them how to live is false by definition under the assumptions of informed and rational actors.

Therefore, the only grounds on which to question whether individuals act so as to maximize their utility is to assert that they have false or incomplete information about the outcomes of their choices. If a restaurant patron orders what he thinks will be a delicious and nutritious dish, but which turns out to contain deadly poison, it does not reduce his welfare to prevent him from ordering it.

In reality, such problems of information are no doubt frequent, but by no means omnipresent. Most of us know what we are getting, more or less, when we make a purchase. In the event that we possess insufficient information to make a rational decision, however, it would be more desirable for government to act, if it must act at all, by providing more information to consumers, rather than by imposing paternalistic bans and market-distorting taxes.

Sunstein then tries to draw a false distinction between what he calls “means paternalism” and “ends paternalism.” He says: “Means paternalism is like a GPS. You can ignore what the GPS says and try your own route, but if you do so, there is a serious risk that you will get lost.” The example given is that of requiring stricter fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, which is in no way like a GPS except that it involves cars. Car manufacturers cannot choose to ignore the mandate, and consumers cannot choose to buy the car they might want, because that option has been taken away from them.

Sunstein attempts to differentiate means paternalism from ends paternalism, claiming that the latter is different because it pushes people towards goals which they may not share, but this distinction is illusory. Do not the automobile standards cited as an example of means paternalism push people towards goals such as air quality and fuel efficiency, goals which may have little import for them?

Every decision involves a tradeoff, and consumers will always pursue their highest priorities at the expense of their lower ones. The assumption implicit in Sunstein’s argument is that government employees have some unique knowledge, not only about the preferences you do have, but also about the preferences you should have.

It is true, as Sunstein points out, that humans err and individuals do not always act to maximize their welfare, but government is made up of individuals who are just as capable or error, and with vastly more devastating consequences. The suggestion that the solution to human fallibility is to give other, equally fallible humans more authority to control the decisions of others is hardly worth comment.

The examples Sunstein brings up to illustrate that people cannot be trusted to make their own decisions are far from convincing. He cites failing to save for retirement and lack of exercise as welfare destroying decisions, already forgetting the tenuous distinction between means and end paternalism. There are two problems with these examples and others like them. First, he is reasoning with the benefit of hindsight. It is easy to call a man foolish for financial imprudence when he has lived to a hundred and fallen into poverty. If the same man had died forty years earlier with plenty of savings, his extravagant youthful spending may no longer seem so unwise.

Second, he neglects the very simple idea that there are perfectly rational reasons to behave in these so called imprudent ways. If the pleasure I get from wolfing down endless Monte Cristo sandwiches outweighs the potential cost to my health multiplied by the probability that I will have to bear that cost (and it so, so does) then government efforts to curb my reckless consumption would reduce my welfare. The fact is that there is no reliable way to judge a person’s preferences other than what they reveal through their behavior.

Still, it is not a stretch to accept that we can imagine some instances in which a paternalistic restriction would make someone’s life better. We have all known people who could really use a swift kick off their current path and into the right direction. The problem, however, is that government policies are not applied individually to the people that would, in fact, benefit from them—even if it were possible to identify such individuals, the administrative expense would be enormous—they are applied to everyone. Therefore, a policy that might have a benefit for a few isolated cases is instead imposed upon the population as a whole, invariably doing more harm than good in robbing people of their ability to make rational decisions to fulfill their goals.

Paternalism does not increase welfare. The notion that government officials in Washington know our wants and needs better than we do is absurd, condescending and insulting. It is part of the cult of credentialism so dominant on the political left that is content to surrender individual autonomy to the self-appointed experts of the world. Government should let us run our own lives, and assume all the responsibilities and dangers thereof. We are adults, and so should we be treated.