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.