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New Paternalism


Paternalism is characterized by one’s inclination to override another person’s preferences. This requires that some have a superior understanding of what is in the best interest of the others. Of course, there is no role for paternalism among libertarians and classical-liberals.

In his work «On Liberty», John Stuart Mill presents a sophisticated stance on paternalism. Although he generally opposes paternalistic attitudes, he concedes that under specific circumstances paternalistic interventions can be warranted. Such exceptions usually pertain to situations where the capacity to make an informed decision is compromised. For example, this applies to minors or individuals experiencing temporary incapacity. In these cases, Mill argues, paternalistic intervention could be essential for the person’s welfare.

John Stuart Mill’s argument for paternalism—the idea that authorities should intervene in people’s lives for their own good when they are not capable of making informed decisions —has gained more traction recently. Behavioural sciences have provided new insights, and emphasised that individuals often fail to be rational. Put differently, individuals often overlook important information when making decisions and are easily swayed by things that should not matter. For example, people are influenced by background music in stores, they struggle to resist temptations and show a tendency toward procrastination. In a word, we are not as rational and sophisticated as the perfectly logical economic man portrayed by mainstream economics.

Given that people’s ability to make well-informed decisions is frequently flawed, it is claimed that some form of paternalistic intervention may be necessary, even when very intrusive and widespread. A prospect we should definitely resist.

Sophisticated forms of paternalism: the as judged by themselves principle

In what I call the new paternalism, the authority acts without formally coercing the individuals. Since the 2008 seminal book «Nudge» by Thaler and Sunstein, it has become customary to describe changes in choice architecture (such as how options are presented, the amount of information given to decision-makers, or whether a specific option is set as the default in case of inaction) as examples of policy intervention. From choosing between taking the stairs or the escalator to deciding how much to save for one’s retirement, choice architecture can have a significant impact on what people do in many walks of life. As Thaler and Sunstein put it, “So long as people are not choosing perfectly, some changes in the choice architecture could make their lives go better (as judged by their own preferences, not those of some bureaucrat)” (Nudge, 2008, p. 10).

The as-judged-by-themselves principle is the Trojan Horse by means of which the new paternalism has gained ground, first in academia and then among bureaucrats. Indeed, if intervention is aimed at altering people’s behaviour and promote their wellbeing, why should there be any opposition? In fact, human history is full of examples of dictators who claim they know what is best for the people and consider themselves the sole interpreters of people’s truly desires.

Why do academics and bureaucrats like the new paternalism?

Plenty of books currently suggest how to design nudges: green nudges, digital nudges, nudges to improve social inclusion, and so on. If the new paternalists could truly implement all the interventions they desire, our lives would be immersed in a viscous and paralyzing fluid, with serious repercussions on our ability to act autonomously.

As a broader point, such enthusiasm for intruding into someone’s life would require very serious motivations at its core. Perhaps a sentiment of philanthropy, or something that can justify all this unsolicited attention towards people’s well-being. Unfortunately, the truth is different.

In academia, the new paternalism aligns very well with the perspective of many who play at being social engineers and presume to know where the good lies and how to reach it with a seemingly harmless stroke of magic. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, are thrilled by the possibility of devising cool interventions and tricks that induce people to act in the direction best for them. At least as the bureaucrats see it.

Photo by Jas Min

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