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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Alam-Nist

Is Paternalistic Intervention Beneficial For Citizens?

Editor's Note: This is an adapted version of an essay written for Andrew Alam-Nist's Higher Project Qualification (HPQ)


Paternalism in a political sphere can be described as governmental intervention in the lives of its citizens, violating their autonomy to some lesser or greater extent, without asking their consent or specifically against it, in order to create a certain greater good. This good aims to aid the person whose autonomy is violated or to aid another person or perhaps society as a whole. This essay will mainly focus on hard paternalism, which is paternalism in which the person being interfered with knows what may happen if they act a certain way yet are still the subject of interference. Soft Paternalism, which is stopping somebody simply because they are unaware of potentially important information, stopping them from coming to a reasoned argument, is generally supported, even by most anti-paternalists, and will broadly not be discussed, as this essay will focus primarily on hard paternalism


The question about governmental interference in the lives of its citizens is a quite controversial topic. The question as to what right the government has to interfere in the lives of citizens and violate their autonomy has defined many political movements, especially within the Twentieth Century. Such questions stand at the core of the moral justifications behind libertarianism, communism, and totalitarianism. This question as to whether the government should be able to mandate what citizens do has been thrown into the limelight somewhat in the past year, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, where controlling and paternalistic intervention through quarantines has, for many countries, mitigated some of the worst effects whilst some liberal democracies in the West have been devastated by the pandemic. To many, the idea of a more paternalistic and controlling government has seemed rather appealing, considering how it seems that governments such as China which took a more draconian stance were able to tackle such a big issue more effectively and thus help the lives of their citizens in a way the Western democracies could not. Within this essay, I will try to answer whether paternalism does truly help the citizens which it affects, looking at individual autonomy and potential government intervention, coming a conclusion regarding the extent to which government control can be beneficial as well as the dangers of an overcontrolling government which acts based upon paternalistic principles.


Many of the philosophers who comprise the backbone of liberal Western thinking are strongly opposed to paternalism in principle. Many see it as fundamentally undermining the right to autonomy each individual should be entitled to and thus entirely reject it. Immanuel Kant, perhaps the most notable proponent of enlightenment rationalism, strongly was opposed to paternalism applied to adults. This is because he believed that each person, being a rational, intelligent adult, should be allowed to live according to their own views of what is right and wrong. He fundamentally believed that, if a government coerces a person into doing something which they do not want to do, it violates their individual right to self-governance and autonomy, and uses them as a means to an end, which within Kantian philosophy is considered immoral.

Another example of such a philosopher John Stuart Mill, despite being generally a Utilitarian, was strongly anti-paternalistic. He considered autonomy to be ‘one of the elements of wellbeing’, which causes intrinsic good and happiness. Autonomy could be considered to be something which causes a feeling of agency, and thus happiness, within people’s lives and something which must be generally strived for. Logically following such a statement, paternalistic intervention, which necessitates violating one’s autonomy, would be considered harmful and generally undesirable. The Elimination of paternalism would reduce the feeling of agency and self-control which the individual has, and thus in turn lead to unhappiness. Moreover, Mill would argue that blanket intervention into the lives of citizens is generally ineffective and also morally wrong. Each individual knows their own needs and desires much better than a state ever could, and thus autonomous action rather than control is significantly more effective at meeting one’s needs and desires, because it can be tailored to the needs and desires of the individual.


Another such philosopher is Robert Nozick. Within his seminal text, Anarchy State and Utopia Nozick argued that any paternalistic intervention involved in more than a ‘minimal state’ consisting merely of courts, police and military, was immoral. This is because he believed that any forced government control violates the rights of its citizens. In cases such as taxation, he considered paternalistic interference to be akin to forced labour, systemically forcing citizens to work, and then taking the fruits of their labour. To him, there would be no point in even mild paternalism, because the potential gain which comes from such action is overshadowed by the harm which comes with paternalistic intervention and undue influence of the State.


It is true that such ideas are somewhat convincing. As long as one does not violate the rights of others, as suggested by Mill as a place to draw the line of what paternalistic interference is moral and what isn’t, it would seem logical to allow people to do what they desire for themselves. One would think that rational adults would be able to know what in their life is beneficial for themselves and what is not, and act in such a way as to lead to their own prosperity and general success. The Government can’t know the specific details about each individual’s life, so it would follow that they shouldn’t force whole populations to act in a certain way, with rules mandating every individual act in the same specific way. Moreover, by doing so, the government allows citizens to live in what is perhaps the most moral way – self-governance in which the individual’s rights are not violated for any reason. Thus it may seem that a citizen would be benefitted most by a minimal government which merely upholds laws such as the prohibition murder, which is generally not considered to be paternalistic interference, due to the other person’s rights and autonomy being violated the crime, and conform to a generally libertarian attitude.


The arguments described earlier, especially Kantian ethics, rely upon the idea that people are rational and act in rational ways, which, whilst perhaps often true, cannot truly considered to be a universal truth. It has been widely found within the field of ‘Neuroeconomics’, a fusion between behavioural economics and neuroscience, that tiny stimuli can change the way a person acts in drastic ways. And indeed, humans are prone to impulsive and addictive behaviour which is not actually that rational. An entry within the American Economic Review Issue 96 by authors Drew Fudenberg and David K Levine offers evidence that humans operate in a dual-self model where the supposed ‘sensible’ part of the brain gets constantly overpowered by the irrational impulsive side. Beyond this, A multitude of studies have suggested that people often act in irrationally in a variety of ways. An article written in 1955 in the Review of Economic Studies, by Richard Strotz, finds that citizens generally have inconsistent or erroneous purchasing patterns; An article by Shlomo Benartzi and Richard Thaler in 1995 in the Quarterly Journal of Economics concludes citizens lack the foresight to save up for retirement savings which would be both necessary and beneficial for themselves; Moreover, an article in 1982 by Jacob Jacoby from the Journal of Consumer Research posits that citizens have an inability to select packages which match personal usage patterns, creating a form of ‘Cognitive Overload’. It must therefore be considered that citizens are not necessarily going to act in a way which furthers their own ends, as Mill and Kant have suggested, and thus may not be able to truly control how they act.


Therefore, considering that humans are indeed prone to acting in an irrational manner, it is important to consider how this affects views towards paternalism. In many cases, such as for instance in criminalising drug use, paternalism is necessary because people cannot be trusted to use drugs responsibly or to not use them, and a blanket ban helps to prevent people getting addicted to potentially dangerous substances, thus helping them further their own ends, and allowing them to continue through their normal lives without such a spectre hanging over them.


Moreover, there are many cases in which paternalism is necessary to prevent people from being coerced into unwilling action by mechanisms other than the law. In many cases, societal pressures may force somebody into doing something which they may be wary of or entirely opposed to, due to the potential consequences within their life if they do not. Perhaps the single most important reason why duelling is banned within most of the world is that citizens do not often actually get to freely choose whether they enter a duel or not. Even they are nominally and legally free to choose whether or not they enter into such a duel, they were forced by societal pressures and notions of honour or virility to enter into one. In such cases, government intervention actually leads to greater freedom, as they live free of such a potential risk, and the banning of such dangerous instances leads to less people dying from preventable deaths, which generally creates a lot of good and benefit for citizens.


Indeed, it can be useful to think of the potential risk-gain calculus of paternalistic action, in a somewhat utilitarian manner. When looking at a law requiring mandatory seatbelt usage, some libertarians, and anti-paternalists such as Robert Nozick would oppose paternalistic intervention mandating everyone wear a seatbelt, stating that it violates the rights of the individual to autonomously decide what they do within their own life. Yet, surely the gain of wearing a seatbelt and potentially preventing a tragic death far outweighs the trivial sacrifice the seatbelt wearer needs to make by wearing a seatbelt. By mandating seatbelt usage, and punishing those who do not wear seatbelts, the government can take a step towards ensuring each citizen is safer on the road and prevent numerous calamities, overcoming the somewhat irrational and impatient side of a person in which, for whatever reason, they choose not to wear a seatbelt when they are fully able to.


A similar discussion could be had about the current (at the time of writing) debate regarding government mandating the wearing of masks. In numerous instances, there has been significant opposition and controversy regarding governments forcing their citizens to wear masks. To some, it violates individual autonomy, and as a result there have been numerous protests across the world protesting this interference. However, from a utilitarian standpoint, it would seem clear that the government should force each citizen to wear a mask. The trade-off of doing so, in the form of individuals being deprived of their right to decide what they wear and whether or not they cover their face, is trivial, whereas the benefits of such a policy are self-evident. Mask wearing has been show repeatedly to significantly slow or even halt the spread of coronavirus, and thus it would seem clear that the government, to maximise utility, should force its citizens to wear masks, despite potential qualms about the rights of an individual.

And indeed, governments often require that people act uniformly in order to allow broad and sweeping proposals, which combat big threats faced by the nation, to be implemented properly and successfully. One only needs to look towards the responses to the recent covid-19 outbreak to understand that in many cases, it is necessary for governments to paternalistically make people act a certain way so that they can combat these bigger issues. Countries which were unafraid to act decisively and impose early lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus generally had a greater degree of success in reducing the spread of the virus, thus reducing the deaths within their countries. China’s more authoritarian approach to the lockdown, despite initially being chided by many in the west as unduly controlling and draconian was able to control the spread of the virus in a way most western countries struggled to, keeping their total deaths, despite being a country of 1.4 Billion people, under 5000. A WHO mission sent to China reported that “China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic,” Such an approach would be impossible without paternalistic intervention from the Chinese and required the Chinese populace as a whole to stay locked down. Individual autonomy would not work and would, according to a ‘principle of fairness’ proposed by John Rawls, be unfair: A few people should not be able to ignore the rules and reap the benefits (i.e a park without other people in it) whilst other people diligently obey, as, if everyone did so, the proposal would collapse or generally be unsustainable. If some break the rules, others will be inclined to do so as well and possibly exceed the capacity. At the very least, it is likely to faster jealousy and contempt which on a hedonic calculus is undesirable and can be considered unbeneficial for a government’s citizens. This is a quite compelling example of an instance in which mandatory paternalistic intervention is necessary to maintain the wellbeing of citizens within a nation, and where every person has a duty to obey equally, lest the entire proposal collapse or at the very least people suffer an unfair injustice due to acting in the moral way.

Such reasoning is why Plato, within his great work ‘The Republic’, envisaged the ideal governmental system to be one be governed by ‘Philosopher Kings’, who are trained from a young age for the role of ruling. He reasoned that rulers, due to specialising in their jobs of governing, would know more about how to rule a state than the average person, and this heightened knowledge would only be furthered by them working towards it from a young age. He reasoned that the average person is easily perverted by greed and ignorance and thus a small ruling minority should dictate paternalistically what the majority does, incurring greater benefit than if each person, who likely would not be nearly as competent at governing, was able to autonomously govern their own actions.

So far, we have proved why paternalistic intervention is justified in some circumstances where governments and rulers correctly apply their oversight in order to ensure they help their citizens. However, it is erroneous to think that rulers will necessarily act as the benevolent, all-knowing leaders which paternalistic philosophers tend to idealise them to be, and that the benefits of paternalistic intervention will actually outstrip its trade-offs.­ As posited by Daryl J Levison in a 1999 research paper, governments are likely more likely to help citizens, as they are fundamentally motivated by political motivations, unlike economic motivations for an individual or corporation. These motivations tend to be more aligned with what is good for citizens, and so governments are likely the most beneficial systems to act as a custodian to carry paternalism and help citizens in order to achieve the benefits highlighted earlier in the essay.


Yet governments can often misstep, either accidentally or , in some cases, purposefully because sometimes (especially in dictatorships) government motivations often do not align with the interests of individuals. Every ruler is a human being, just like the people they rule, and are prone to the same emotions and cognitive biases which supposedly make humans irrational and unable to govern themselves. The ideal some people hold of a benevolent all-knowing leader has rarely, if ever, materialised. Even the best-meaning leaders are prone to making miscalculations.


Indeed, an overly paternalistic outlook tends to trivialise the rights of citizens, which are still quite important, and lead to an overly utilitarian way of thinking. If you asked a proponent of the eugenics movement in the early 20th Century, for instance Francis Galton, whether they honestly thought what they were doing was right, they would probably candidly say yes, and point out to you reasoning about the greater good of a supposed better human race, using utilitarian philosophy as their justification of the movement’s morality. Yet with hindsight, we can understand that the movement was unnecessary, largely unscientific and unduly cruel, leading to 60-70 thousand (DenHoed, 2016) people within the US being sterilised for little to no reason. The issue with this manner of thinking is that what is good and to be strived for is subjective, and one may be misguided in motives or unable to know if intervention will actually provide such a good. Yet one can know immediately that they are causing harm by undermining a base right, as in the eugenics movement by denying the right to reproduce. Paternalism can be seriously harmful for citizens, especially when it violates a right which they hold.

There is also little reason practically to think that those put in power after they promise a benevolent paternalistic regime will actually live up to their promises and will not act in a tyrannical, malevolent manner. So many supposedly well-meaning or perhaps actually well-meaning regimes have ended up devolving into tyranny, in which citizens’ rights are violated for little reason and without any of the benevolence characterised by paternalism. Once a regime stops caring about the dissent of its citizens, a feature of an overly paternalistic state, it can be prone to just totally diverging with their viewpoints and in the process no longer actually caring for its citizens in a benevolent manner. One only needs to look at movements such as the communist revolution in Russia to see how an initially good meaning group who focuses upon paternalistic ideals can devolve into totalitarianism and oppression. Even if a leader turns out to be well-meaning and does not act singularly for his own interests, they are likely to be succeeded eventually by somebody who will act in a tyrannical, unjust way, as happened with Stalin in Russia, once he was vested with the extensive powers given to the state. A government must be in power whose interests align with what is in the best interests of its citizens, and its institutions and structure must be set up so that every proceeding ruler similarly has the best interests of the citizens considered.


Thus, the question becomes, how is a government to ensure that it has its interests aligned with those of the citizenry. This is perhaps a fundamental question within political science. The Mechanism which this essay proposes for doing so is having a democratic system of government, with universal franchise, and elections. Within democracies, this oppression is avoided by the democratic system having elections. Elections act as a fundamental mechanism to prevent leaders’ priorities straying from the wellbeing of their citizenry, because, if a leader acts in a cruel or unjust manner, they will be voted out of office. They prevent a leader from promising to act paternalistically and then acting merely to further their own ends, rather than the ends of their citizens. An overly paternalistic state, which does not have its power checked by the citizenry, will likely try to rid itself of elections. If one believes that the citizenry is generally misguided and the ruling class is not, it follows naturally that the citizenry should not elect the ruling class. However, elections are essential to making sure the ruling class actually works to help the citizens it works for. Whilst citizens are clearly not infallible and sometimes act irrationally, as suggested earlier within the essay, they will generally know their wants and desires and their consensus is the best way to reliably ensure that a ruler who will not use paternalism as a justification for their own misdeeds is elected. Within democracies, politicians proposing significantly unpopular ideas will often not be put in office, as there are generally institutions in place which aim to force any leaders to server their citizens and prevent such leaders from grabbing power. There is undoubtedly nevertheless the potential for democracies to act in in a way unpopular with citizens or transition into autocracy, yet generally rulers in democracies, particularly those with strong institutions, will serve their citizens. This, in turn, will generally limit their ability to act paternalistically, as they will not be able to force citizens to act in a way which the nation’s citizenry as a whole is strongly opposed to. Yet, for the reasons that citizens on the whole are usually rational and able to act in their own self-interests as well as that such a course helps to ensure a more benevolent government, such limitations to paternalism do indeed benefit the citizens of a country. The majority of rational citizenry can act in a way so as to correct for the irrationalities within a minority.

Thus, It is extremely important to consider thoroughly a potential course of action which has paternalistic motivation, especially if it violates a base right or human right, and the onus must rest upon the government to prove that their proposed paternalistic intervention will actually help their citizens. If this is not the case, the government will be much more likely to paternalistically intervene when it is actually not beneficial, and a corrupt government will be able to claim non-paternalistic action much more easily to be paternalism.


Paternalistic intervention, is beneficial to its citizens, but only to a limited extent and in some cases. There is a strong argument for paternalism in many cases. It can help to prevent some of the negative behaviour of the impulsive, irrational sides of people to ensure that they act in a way to further their own goals. It also allows broader plans to happen more effectively, preventing certain individuals trying to be exempt from it for their own gain. Yet whilst the benefits of helping to mitigate all the irrationalities within people are appealing, an over-reliance upon paternalistic influence and utilitarian thinking are extremely dangerous. A government which bases its actions on paternalism in name can often actually help its citizens less effectively, as it loses the fundamental check offered in elections to ensure it serves the interests of its citizens. Moreover, as suggested by Mill, allowing citizens autonomy and the freedom to act how they wish and choose their course of action can be innately good. Stripping them of this, even with paternalistic motivations, is dangerous, and can be extremely harmful. A government should not take away their citizens’ rights and autonomy without a very good reason. Therefore, for paternalistic intervention to be beneficial, is extremely important to consider thoroughly a potential course of action which has paternalistic motivation and have the onus rest upon the government to prove as far as it can that any paternalistic intervention will indeed benefit its citizens. Paternalism does have the potential to benefit a government’s citizens, but it equally has the potential to harm its citizens, needlessly taking away their right to autonomy and acting in a misguided way, when taken too far.

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