When you were a child, it is likely that your parents told you to behave in certain ways “for your own good.” Out of concern for your safety, they directed you to avoid playing in the streets and sticking your fingers in electrical sockets. Out of concern for your future relationships, they instructed you to avoid unruly behavior at the dinner table and to learn basic manners.
As you grew up and became an adult, maybe the thought of living in a world without this sort of benevolent, careful direction intimidated you? Let me ease your mind and inform you that the friendly federal government is more than willing to take on some of these parental burdens and instruct you on the best possible way to live.
Since you are not able or motivated to adequately plan for your future, you should be encouraged that the Social Security system exists to involuntarily take a portion of your earnings and put it aside for your retirement. Since you may or may not care about preserving your life, you should be relieved that laws exist to force you to wear seatbelts while driving. Since you are quite likely to blow all of your money on lotteries or other betting activities, you should rejoice that the government severely restricts gambling. Since you could seriously damage your health through the use of certain drugs, you should be encouraged that the government has outlawed all sorts of narcotics.*
This sort of behavior on the part of the government is known as paternalism, which can be defined as the practice of subordinating individuals for their own best interest.
According to many economists, however, it is assumed that individuals are rational and already able to make decisions based on their own interests, without additional direction. Individuals maximize their utility (basically their satisfaction, happiness, etc.) by making choices based on a particular set of unique tastes and preferences. This view assumes the following:
a) individuals act based on their self-interests and try to maximize their utility
b) each individual has unique preferences, which means that optimal decisions vary depending on the person involved
b) because of these unique preferences, utility is maximized via choice
d) because of the previous three assumptions, individuals (as opposed to outside forces such as the government) are best able to maximize their own utility**
These assumptions lead to a number of questions/concerns regarding the paternalistic behavior of government.
- If people are already motivated to look out for their own interests, why does government need to step in and command individuals to behave “for their own good?” It seems that most people value their lives and would use seatbelts and/or drive carefully without government mandates. Similarly, if saving money for retirement is a wise, self-beneficial thing to do, it seems that most people would do this on their own. If people chose not to put money aside for retirement, this would reflect unique utility-maximizing preferences on the part of the individuals involved. Maybe these people do not expect to live into retirement, see no purpose in saving money for the future, and thus, have a very different idea on how to maximize utility than the government. This leads to the next question.
- Assuming the government’s view of an individual’s “best interest” is different than the individual’s view, what qualifies the government to make this distinction? Do we believe that a small, elected group of people have somehow been enlightened to know how millions of others should live for their own good? For example, drinking a large soda will likely have negative effects on my health in the future. But maybe I value the present benefits of this decision over the future costs. The government is free to say that my decision is unwise and inform me of the consequences of my action, but can they legitimately say that my decision to drink a large soft drink is not out of my own interest? Can they truly say that I would be happier foregoing the soda in order to (potentially) live a longer, healthier life?
- If individuals maximize their utility through choice, how do inflexible mandates really allow individuals to act “for their own good?” If unique preferences and situations dictate differing decision-making criteria, how do one-size-fits-all commands allow individuals to maximize their utility? Let’s say that preventing an addict from gambling actually works. Due to legal restrictions, this person no longer wastes his/her money and makes more prudent financial decisions. What about the person who has the self-control to place a few bets here or there without causing complete financial ruin? The inexact, unnuanced nature of the law forces all people to behave in ways that might benefit some, while simultaneously hurting others.
- Do these paternalistic laws actually work to benefit people?
– I will probably never see any of the Social Security tax that is being withheld from my paycheck. In terms of aiding me in planning for my retirement, the mere non-existence of the Social Security system, which is a drain on my income, would be incredibly beneficial. If I did not have to pay into such a broken system, I would have additional money to set aside for the future, invest, and earn interest.
– On another note, do seatbelt laws actually help promote safety? Research has shown that these laws have no effect on driver safety and have a negative effect on pedestrian safety.
– In terms of gambling, it seems that if I’m determined to blow my paycheck, I have many other opportunities besides betting. That’s not even considering the moral inconsistencies that come into the picture when outlawing certain types of gambling, while only allowing government-regulated gambling activities. If the government is truly concerned about the dangers of gambling addiction, why do they even allow any forms of gambling?
– It seems that even if the answers to the first three questions necessitate government involvement, the actual results of these paternalistic laws show that this type of intervention has been far from effective.
- Does government actually have the right to order people to act “for their own good?” This is a complex question, which would take a considerable amount of time to answer fully. To briefly deal with it, I would argue that people have a right to use their life and property how they see fit and government infringement on these rights necessitates substantial justification, in order to be deemed appropriate (if ever). Furthermore, small paternalistic steps to micromanage and shape certain aspects society can lead to increased government power and future abuses and injustices. Along these lines, economist and historian, Murry Rothbard, argues that paternalism “leads straight down the logical garden path to [a] totalitarian cage, where people are prohibited from eating candy and are forced to eat yogurt ‘for their own good'” (from “For A New Liberty,” page 136). As noted earlier, one’s own good (from an economic standpoint) can be quite subjective and by allowing the government to legislate utility-maximization, we create numerous opportunities for tyrannical, unnecessary legislation.
Let me conclude by clarifying that I am not advocating moral relativism of any sort. I believe that moral absolutes exist regardless of personal feelings. However, analyzing actions from a moral perspective is different than analyzing them based on the amount of personal utility derived from the action. A murderer can derive significant satisfaction from a blatantly immoral action, making it easy to label this action as immoral, but impossible to say that this individual failed to maximize self-interest.***
And even if a person makes a decision without fully realizing some of the benefits or costs, it makes much more sense to use persuasive means than coercive means to attempt to alter behavior. For if a person is rational and an action will truly be self-beneficial, why would that person need to be forced to perform the action?
This gets to the heart of paternalistic legislation, which revolves around the government’s arrogant assumption that individuals cannot make rational, self-beneficial decisions for themselves. To end where this post began, good parents order their children to do things for their own benefit when they are young. But as these children grow up and become adults, parents tend to take on advisory roles, rather than purely authoritarian positions, allowing their children to make their own decision. The federal government, on the other hand, does not affirm individual rationality and capability and continues to treat individuals as children, even into adulthood.
Hopefully, this post made you think a little bit. I did not intend to fully deal with all of the topics mentioned, but rather, give a brief overview of a few issues that I have been thinking about lately. Whether you support government paternalism or agree with my critiques, I’d love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to send me an email or leave a comment below. Thanks!
*Some of the laws mentioned here may have other non-paternalistic motives behind them. For example, prohibitions on drug use may be motivated by protecting society or limited some of the negative externalities created by drug use (i.e violence). However, in this post, I am limiting my analysis to the area of paternalism. Therefore, any analysis of these other issues/motivations will have to be dealt with at a later time.
**I’ll try to illustrate these four assumptions using a real world situation. When going to an ice cream parlor individuals act based on their self-interests and try to maximize their utility by choosing their favorite flavor of ice cream. If you’ve been craving cookies and cream ice cream, it makes sense that you would choose that flavor. Additionally, each individual has unique preferences, which means that optimal decisions vary depending on the person involved. So although you might desire cookies and cream, not everybody will share that preference. Therefore, because of these unique preferences, utility is maximized via choice. If you are not able to choose the flavor that you prefer, chances are you will be unhappy, or at least less happy than you would have been if you were allowed to choose. Because of the previous three assumptions, individuals (as opposed to outside forces) are best able to maximize their own utility. If your friend has to pick your ice cream for you, he/she may not choose the flavor that you prefer. Even worse, if someone who doesn’t know you chooses the flavor for you, you are even more likely to be disappointed by the ice cream selection. The worst situation, however, would be someone, without intimate knowledge of the individuals involved, choosing one flavor that everybody has to consume.
***Hopefully it is clear that when I refer to individuals acting “for their own good,” I am referring to an economic weighing of benefits and costs that vary depending on the individual and the situation. This is not to discount the existence of moral/spiritual absolutes which would declare certain actions “good” and other actions “bad.” And if, in the cases discussed, the government were legislating purely based on these moral absolutes, that would be one thing (and that would lead to questions about government’s role in legislating morality, etc.). However, this post is limited to analyzing legislation that forces individuals to act “for their own good.”