Paternalism II

I was recently accused of sounding like Donald Trump in suggesting that the tendency on the part of the “powers that be” to tell us what is good for us is “paternalistic.” I argued that those who cherish their freedom should be outraged that the state, or any other agency, should tell us what is the best course of action. In saying this I noted that the freedom that is so highly prized carries with it the responsibility to act with respect toward other people. Indeed, my point was that in taking this giant step toward paternalism in the case of the caronaviorus we are being told we are too stupid to decide what steps we should take for ourselves.

My position is closer to that of John Stuart Mill in his essay “On Liberty” than it is to Donald Trump — if anyone is in a position to say exactly what it is that the man is saying. I confess I don’t understand much of what he says. But from what I do understand the two men seem to be at polar opposites on any intellectual scale with which I am familiar. Mill’s “very simple principle” says, in effect, that there are no moral grounds for stopping a person from doing something unless it is clear that his or her actions will harm another person. And let’s be clear about this: we are talking about intentional harm — as when a woman is abused or a thief holds up another at gun point. Mill is not talking about “incidental” harm, that is, harm the person cannot possibly be said to know he or she is inflicting on another — as in the case of attending a sporting event while one (unknowingly) carries the virus.

Now it might be said that by telling people not to attend sporting events the state is prohibiting us from infecting others with the virus, thereby harming them. But this assumes that we have the virus and that those who do have it, or might have it, are unable to make the decision to stay at home and seek medical attention. Or, as noted above, it ignores the case of the innocent carrier who infects others without knowing it: in that case the responsible thing to do is to make sure one is not a carrier before attending a packed event. The claim that we need to be told when to attend or not to attend a sporting event rests on the assumption that we are all a bunch of lemmings who blindly follow the latest leader who wants us to attend next Friday’s NBA Basketball game between the Wolves and the Clippers. We don’t have enough sense to stay at home and watch it on television. We are too stupid to know that helmets do protect those who ride a motorcycle, seat belts do protect those in car crashes, and infant car seats do protect the very young. Thus laws are written and enforced.

But, and here’s the heart and soul of the comment that accused me of Trumpism (the worst thing anyone can say about another person): We ARE too stupid. I can’t disagree. My argument, like Mill’s, assumes that reasonable people will make reasonable decisions and act rationally. And this assumption cannot hold up to empirical evidence. Folks really are too stupid to do the sensible thing. We must be told.

But what this means is that the libertarian dream and the argument against paternalism is based on a “best of all possible worlds” scenario. In that world people would do the smart thing. In this world, sad to sad (and increasingly) we do not. Thus steps taken to protect us all from the coronavirus are justified — and those who scream about their freedoms have no idea what they are screaming about. They certainly do not want to accept the responsibility that goes along hand in hand with freedom. You cannot have one without the other.


The coronavirus has the world in a dither — like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis (as Tom Lehrer might say). Despite the fact that a very low percentage of those who contract the virus actually die, steps are being taken that must give us pause.

Italy has banned all spectators from all sporting events during the month of March. There’s even talk about cancelling all sporting events. Around the world, and increasingly in this country as well, events are being cancelled right and left. Additionally, we read that the ASEAN Conference, Google News Initiative, Geneva International Auto Show, various concerts in Asia and elsewhere, and the Mobile World Congress, among many others, have been cancelled despite the fact that many of these events bring a great deal of money to the region and are immensely popular. Some companies in the United States are prohibiting their employees from air travel — even for personal vacations!

And so it goes. Big Brother is taking care of us. The assumption appears to be that we are not able to decide for ourselves whether we can take a chance to be with other people in the face of a growing pandemic. But isn’t that our decision? On what grounds can we defend the determination by various agencies to keep us indoors and away from others who might pass the virus along?

Most of the expert opinion I have read suggests that if we take precautions we can avoid contracting the virus. But apparently we are not trusted to take those steps so we are being told how to behave. This is what is called “paternalism.” Daddy is taking care of us because we are too stupid to take care of ourselves.

There are other instances of paternalism, of course, such as laws enforcing the use of infant car carriers and, my personal favorite, the law requiring helmets for motorcycle riders. Laws are generally made to protect us from others who might harm us, but in the case of helmet laws one hears the claim that when a person is thrown from a motorcycle he or she may incur health costs that will eventually be passed along to us all — as will the increased insurance rates. But this argument is weak and we simply look the other way as someone with Big Hands puts our child in a car seat or a helmet on us before we take off on our motorcycle.

What’s the problem here? It is, among other things, an attempt on the part of those in power to tell others how they must behave: it is a diminishing of our freedom. And while we love to kick and scream about our freedom, we seem perfectly content to have various agencies tell us what is good for us. I do wonder if it comes down the the fact that we really would prefer not to take the responsibility that freedom involves.

There seem to be a great many forces in this culture that deprive each of us of our autonomy. Many of the laws we obey are not only well-meaning but also necessary. There are the things we do that might harm others and which ought therefore to be prohibited. But when our behavior affects no one but ourselves — such as wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle or attending a sporting event — those restrictions seem to me to be well-meaning but unacceptable. We must presume not that folks are too stupid to take care of themselves; we must presume that folks can take care of themselves. And if they can’t so much the worse for them.

Paternalism is one of the many hidden forces that operate upon each of us and are based on the faulty premise that we cannot take care of ourselves. We should be much more upset about those restrictions than we are. And this is not an angry young radical speaking. This is an aged somewhat moderate but occasionally outraged retired person who is simply astounded by what is going on around him.

I do not mean to belittle the seriousness of the coronavirus. It is something we need to take seriously. But it is also something that we really ought to be able to handle with expert advice and not by needless restrictions on our behavior based on the assumption that we are even more stupid than we are in fact.