Paternalism is the idea that the State (one’s country) has a right to determine some rules that citizens are obliged to follow because the State knows better and something important is on the line. So, stopping at a traffic light might simply be a law – and one that everyone can agree with. Libertarians, however, object to some laws made by lawmakers on the grounds that they are unnecessarily paternalistic, and sap the liberty of the individual. Wearing helmets during motorcycling is a good example of an issue that is debated between libertarians and those who feel that the individual is not necessarily the best decision-maker when it comes to things such as safety. Clearly, gun rights are the issue du jour. Here are some thoughts about who gets to decide what, how, and why.
“In general terms, paternalism refers to ‘government as by a benign parent’. That is, the notion that those in positions of power have, just as in the relationship between parents and children, the right and the obligation to overrule the preferences of those deemed incapable of knowing their true interests. Thus, in the area of politics and public policy, paternalism is commonly used in a broad sense to refer to any intervention in private decision-making and/or elitism on the part of governments or other authorities.” ~ Matthew Thomas and Luke Buckmaster
Thomas and Buckmaster, Australian scholars, go on to shape the definition in the following way: “paternalism can be said to have three essential elements, each of which must be in evidence if an act is to be categorized as paternalist. For an act to be said to be paternalist it must: involve interference in a person’s choice or opportunity to choose; be with the objective of furthering the person’s perceived good or welfare; and be made without the consent of the person concerned.”
“Many government measures aimed at changing the behaviour of individuals entail some level of coercion. That is, they require governments to restrict the choices of their citizens in certain areas,” they write in their paper entitled “Paternalism in Social Policy: When Is It Justified?”
I thought about this the other day when noting that municipalities often put (or once did, I’m actually not sure) fluoride in the water supply.
Here is what Harvard University notes about this practice:
Beginning in the early 20th century, scientists linked high levels of naturally occurring fluoride in certain community water supplies to low levels of tooth decay. In 1945, Grand Rapids, Michigan, became the first community in the world to add fluoride to tap water. When subsequent studies showed a significantly lower rate of cavities in schoolchildren, water fluoridation spread to other towns and cities. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named community water fluoridation one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.
But many experts now question the scientific basis for the intervention. In June 2015, the Cochrane Collaboration—a global independent network of researchers and health care professionals known for rigorous scientific reviews of public health policies—published an analysis of 20 key studies on water fluoridation. They found that while water fluoridation is effective at reducing tooth decay among children, “no studies that aimed to determine the effectiveness of water fluoridation for preventing caries [cavities] in adults met the review’s inclusion criteria.”
It’s a matter that is noteworthy because one could argue that childhood cavities, especially among poor children, ought to be reduced if it’s easily possible to do so. However, Harvard notes that “Perhaps most worrisome is preliminary research in laboratory animals suggesting that high levels of fluoride may be toxic to brain and nerve cells. And human epidemiological studies have identified possible links to learning, memory, and cognition deficits, though most of these studies have focused on populations with fluoride exposures higher than those typically provided by U.S. water supplies.”
Here is a point made by a health and wellness kind of website (here): “Reason #1 to Oppose Water Fluoridation: Fluoridation is a violation of the individual’s right to informed consent to medication. Within a community water supply, fluoride is being added to the water of everyone, even if some people do not want it and still others do not even know about the fluoride being added to the water or about its health risks. Informed consumer consent is needed for water fluoridation, especially because of the alarming lack of safety for this chemical and its health risks.”
Yet, fluoride found its way into the water of many municipalities for many years. This is right in the crux of this issue: does government (and associated interests, such as dentists, pharmaceutical companies, and research universities) get it right when they mandate some addition or subtraction of a duty or a right among citizens? In the case of fluoridation of public water, I would say “No, with some reservations”.
In regard to motorcycle helmets, automobile seatbelts, and gun rights restrictions, I think a stronger case can be made.
“Paternalist policies are almost inevitably controversial in liberal societies. Not only do they challenge the fundamental principle that individuals should have sovereignty over themselves when it comes to judging and acting on their own interests, but they also have the potential to do more harm than good.” ~ Matthew Thomas and Luke Buckmaster
Libertarians would argue that almost never is government the better entity to decide for an individual than the individual is. Those who advocate for a bigger, better government would argue that people can be ignorant, lazy, and misguided, and that those who have more expertise – when they are being 100% ethical and more than a little wise – can come up with social policy and laws that tend to protect the health and welfare of society (broadly defined).
Unfortunately, in this era when the wisdom and authority of government and other societal institutions have been eroded by the love of money, social media, and government itself (think: Senator Joe McCarthy, or Richard Nixon), the case made by the libertarians is strengthened.
A key point in this debate is the coerciveness and the nature of a law or policy. Thomas and Buckmaster again (and they quote Bill New, a public policy researcher): “If, however, the state were intervening to correct a failure of reasoning on the part of the individual rather than a failure of information, then this would, according to New, constitute a paternalist intervention. To return to the previous example, if the state were to intervene to prevent [a beach-going] swimmer from entering treacherous waters—despite an adequate supply of information (warning signs and lifeguards)—then this would represent a paternalist intervention.” Clearly, keeping drugs such as cocaine and unprescribed opioids out of the hands of citizens (and cigarettes and e-cigarettes, especially, out of the hands of minors) is an example of a paternalist policy that is meant to overrule some individuals’ judgment about how much and what kind of drug use is safe.
“…paternalist policies are more likely to be legitimate under certain circumstances than others. Where high stakes decisions are involved, the decisions made by individuals are irreversible and it is possible to identify failures in people’s reasoning, then paternalist interventions may be justified.” ~ Matthew Thomas and Luke Buckmaster
I wonder how a needle exchange program meant to prevent the spread of disease through the use of shared needles (for heroin use, and such) would be considered: paternalistic, or not really because it involves the offering of a service rather than the prescription of an act or the prohibition of an act.
Thomas and Buckmaster proceed to this point in their paper: “Unsurprisingly, paternalist policies are controversial. This is largely because they are premised on the notion that the government or the state is better able to make decisions in a person’s interests than the person themself. As Bill New notes, such policies ‘appear to offend a fundamental tenet of liberal societies: namely, that the individual is best placed to know what is in his or her interests’.”
“Typically, then, there is a strong presumption against paternalist policies in liberal societies. This is especially so where the acts being regulated or prohibited through these policies do not cause harm to other people. The rationale behind this precept of liberal societies is clearly outlined in John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’. According to this principle, limiting people’s liberty is only justifiable to prevent harm to other people. On this view, it is not justifiable to constrain people’s liberty in order to prevent self-harm to which the people concerned competently consent. However, according to Mill, where people are considered to be incompetent to make decisions in their own interests, the harm principle permits paternalist intervention. For strict libertarians, the harm principle is the only legitimate grounds for paternalistic intervention by the state.” ~ Matthew Thomas and Luke Buckmaster
Things get a little dicey when Thomas and Buckmaster go here: “The objective, according to some commentators, should be to strike a balance between interventions aimed at protecting people’s choices (rather than promoting their interests) and those that try to impose on people what is judged to be objectively good for them. Political philosopher, Robert Goodin, has argued that the best way to achieve such a compromise is to search for some justification for paternalist intervention in the person who is being subjected to this intervention. This entails finding in the person’s own values reasons for saying that paternalism is in their interests. Under such an approach, the emphasis would be to focus on identified failures in the person’s reasoning—failures that can be regarded as standing in the way of their identifying and acting so as to realise their best interests.”
A case begins to coalesce that sometimes the State really does know better than the individual when they claim the following:
People’s reasoning may be less than optimal in a number of circumstances. An individual may not have the technical ability to reason or to adequately work through information in some situations. This is especially so where there is a great deal of information to be evaluated and/or the information being considered may be too complex or conflicting for the individual’s cognitive abilities. It is also the case that an individual may have abstract knowledge or information in a particular area, but be lacking in first-hand experience. For example, they may not have experienced the consequences of a decision, like crashing a motorcycle while not wearing a helmet.
I am a motorcyclist and I can tell you that there are three things to consider about helmets: a) riding without a helmet is more fun and exhilarating; b) there is good research about how likely a head injury is and how frequent motorcycle crashes occur and what the results will probably be; c) if society has to pay, directly or indirectly, for helmet noncompliance it is very significant; and d) some people have more knowledge, education, insight, and self-discipline than others. Let’s face it, some motorcyclists are dumb sensation-seekers who care little about society as a whole and mispredict the likelihood of head injury.
With guns, there are tens of thousands of gun nuts in America. There just are, I’m sorry to have to put it like that! The majority of gun owners, and even most members of the NRA, are not far-right libertarian wingnuts who believe that any amount of firepower is justifiable and that the individual bears all responsibility for their actions. The corollary is that society bears no responsibility for individuals’ actions.
This is not something I agree with. We see what happens weekly now when there are over 300,000,000 guns and many people are mentally ill, aggrieved, angry, jealous, petty, vengeful, and socially isolated. It is incumbent upon society as a whole to, via elected representatives, to try to make certain policies that will negatively affect gun violence.
Next up might be regulations on technology. Companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook have been facing criticism here and abroad lately, and the European Union has leveled huge fines against such companies for various acts that are against the well-being of the people. Of course, government functions better and more responsively in Europe (read: less power is given to moneyed individuals and huge multinational corporations to affect government). When I think of the addictiveness that device manufacturers and social media platforms engineered into their products, and consider the stellar Netflix show Black Mirror, I gulp and feel anxiety.
Something probably has to be done to prevent every single American from becoming a screen-addicted pseudo-human in just twenty more years. If that involves a theoretical or actual infringement on my perceptions of what my rights ought to be, I would hope that I have the insight to realize that often the passions get the better of the individual, and when a company sets 25 engineers to figure out how to addict us to technology, we might not have the wherewithal to look out for our own best interests adequately.
And yes, I do mean that we all have perceptions of what our rights ought to be; no other person, or group of persons, including the “Founding Fathers” can authoritatively and objectively determine 250 years hence what is correct, justifiable, and wise.
My only reservation is not that society does some things that infringe on liberty for the sake of the whole, but that we end up getting the formula wrong because of the outsize influence of the wealthy and the often nefarious interests of corporations (which as you might know have been likened to sociopaths). Theoretically, a responsible and responsive government is accountable to logic, science, and the will of the people, so if we err by restricting gun purchases or ownership or public carrying too much, we can reconsider.
That is how sane and functional societies function. What we have now is an insane and dysfunctional society (in America) where, in the gun violence example, the NRA uses its bought-and-paid-for Republican representatives and the many mouth-breathers in red states to subject the rest of us to unjustifiable gun “rights”. As well, the policies of the political Right mean that we have less health care, mental health care, income inequality, and social cohesion than we ought to (and used to), and so we can’t successfully tweak that set of factors either. 300,000,000 guns and a morally decaying society. And thus, either due to suicide, murder, accidents, or mass murder, people die unnecessarily in large numbers. Ω
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