Paternalism in relation to public policy refers to the interference of the government or state with a person’s life without their consent, and such actions are motivated by a claim to protect the person coerced or targeted from self-inflicted harm, as a result of their uncertain choices and preferences.1 This essay discusses the two justifications of paternalistic policies based on Gerald Dworking’s studies, in which he indicated that paternalism can only be justified if i) dangerous decisions are involved, have far reaching consequences and substantially permanent, and ii) “the subject of coercion is acting under psychological compulsion or under unusual social pressure”.
State paternalism routinely raises conflict between government’s legitimate purpose of ensuring its citizens’ well being and the citizens’ legitimate right to personal liberty and self-determination. Nonetheless, this essay strongly supports paternalism and the government’s intervention, as the benefits of its paternalistic policies outweighs the costs of an individual’s choice or behavior. Statistics, research and results of two recent policies in New Zealand – the National Drug Policy 2007 and the Suicide Prevention Policy 2006 stated that paternalism brings about more good than harm, in contrast to the results based on the anti-paternalism arguments put forth by John Mill.
In Morality and Law (1971), Gerald Dworking claims that paternalism is justified only when dangerous decisions are involved, have far reaching consequences and substantially permanent. For instance, people began to take addictive drugs such as alcohol, methane, cannabis and tobacco with or without knowing the effects.
If the government tolerated such action to continue, the individual will face the long term and permanent effects concerning health issues such as lung diseases, heart attack, stroke as well as reducing their life expectancy, as a result of their decision to take drugs.
It is in situations like these that the government is called upon to intervene with people’s personal decisions in order to change their behavior against drug consumption, preventing them from long life effects. Consequently, the government involves some level of coercion such as enforcing policies that: interferes with a person’s choice or opportunity to choose; furthers the person’s perceived good or welfare; interferes without the consent of the person targeted.
In New Zealand, drug consumptions are on the rise particularly affecting people from the Maori and Pacific island groups, therefore, the government put forth the National Drug Policy in 2007 to reduce and prevent further harms from these people’s self-interests and choices to start smoking and drinking. Additionally, medical and heath statistics from the Ministry of Health shows the increasing rate of individuals with heart related problems, lung diseases and cancer as a result of high alcohol and tobacco consumption. One of the principles in the National Drug Policy includes harm minimization, which deals with improving the social and well being outcomes of the individual.
Paternalistically, it remains important to reduce and prevent harm and the personal costs -suffering from cancer, heart attack that will reduce a person’s life expectancy – as a result of the high drug intake. This is good enough to justify the government’s interference with the individual’s decision to start using drugs, despite accusations against it. The objective is that if the policy does more good than harm then there shouldn’t be a problem to whether it is violating the liberty of the individual to choose for them, as long as the policy’s goals are achieved. How should we know when the policy is effective? The benefits are greater than costs.
Nonetheless, not everyone is an advocate of paternalism, like John Mill, he opposes the ideas and justifications of paternalism on any ground stating that individuals know what is best for them and they should be regarded as the best judge of their own welfare. For instance, when the government intervenes in people’s lives they stripped away the ability of people to make their own choices and learn from their mistakes. However, this essay strongly disagrees with Mill’s ideas, as it does not serve or promote people’s welfare but rather imposes more harm on the individual’s life, also, it denies the fact that people’s choices affects and endangered them, aside from the paternalistic actions taken by the government to promote the good for the individual.
For instance, if people knew that smoking and drinking can affect their health and reduces their life expectancy, and the anti-paternalism advocates expected the people to learn from their mistake after the damage had already taken effect of the person’s life. Isn’t this imposing more harm to the self than reducing it? Paternalism assists the individual in withdrawing from smoking and drinking before any damage has been done.
Furthermore, notions of anti-paternalism seemed irrational and preposterous as it destroys the individual rather than saving the self. For instance, John Mill further emphasized the importance of autonomy and freedom to choose for the development of a person’s individuality, and people must be left free to make their own choices about how they will lead their lives, even if these choices are considered reckless, inappropriate or affecting their future”. This is evidence that John Mill and his supporters care little for the people’s welfare as they rather sit and let people destroy their lives than preventing them from the harm of their choices. The government acts paternalistically because it wanted the best for the people and prevents them from the vulnerability of their decisions.
For instance, the National Drug Policy has achieved its goals of preventing more people from taking drugs especially the teenagers that have just started or thinking of consuming it.12 Research stated that the rate of hazardous drinking has decreased significantly from 49% in 2006 and 2007 to 36% in 2011 and 2012 of teens consuming alcohol while teens taking drugs (cannabis and tobacco) gradually reduced from 39% in 2001 to 27% in 2007.13 It is believed that it will keep decreasing if policies are effectively handled. This shows more justification for more paternalistic policies to be enacted if the future, as long as the benefits outweighs the costs. The world is better with government interferences in people’s lives.
The second justification for paternalism is also drawn from Gerald Dworking – a supporter of paternalism – claiming that state intervention can only be acceptable if “the subject of coercion is acting under psychological compulsion or under unusual social pressure. Working claims the government used coercion to enable people to accomplish their own goals. He stated, “Ignorance, psychological compulsion, or even outright weakness of will may prevent people from achieving their goals, and paternalistic coercion is an appropriate remedy”.
For instance, most of the mentally ill people experienced suicidal disorder from internal depression and that fact is that they are unaware of the effects and rather ignored them. Would you rather leave them to commit suicide or save them? Consequently, New Zealand’s government have enacted a Suicide Prevention Policy in 2006 with the aim that by 2016 the number or suicide incidents have reduced as well as decreasing the harmful effect and impact associated with suicide and suicidal behavior on the people.
Once again, if such policy brings more good to the individual than harm, then it is reasonable enough to justify interventions from the government. The government may use coercion and limited liberty of the individual to do what they desire, but it is for the person’s own benefit not the government’s. Since Joel Feinberg argues that state paternalism can never be justified because there is no guarantee that it will improve people’s welfare, if gives more reason for the government to intervene because they are in fact, promoting the good for the people as well as encouraging them to achieve their goals.
For example, the Suicide Prevention Policy 2006 showed that mental health disorders (including, in particular, mood disorders, substance use disorders, psychotic disorders and antisocial disorders) account for up to 70 percent of suicides and suicide attempts in 2005.18 Statistics provided by the Ministry of Health in 2006 indicated that the suicide rate for Māori was 17.8 per 100,000, compared with the non-Māori rate of 11.0 per 100,000. In 2008 the Māori rate has decreased by 14 percent since the peak in the previous years, while the rate for non-Māori decreased by 21 percent during the same period. This shows the effectiveness of the paternalistic policies put forward by the government to prevent from self-imposed harm.
Additionally, if we ban paternalism as Mill suggested, half of the world not to mention half of New Zealand’s population would have been gone due to suicidal incidents. Based on arguments from Mill, he implied that approaches by the government to interfere with a person’s freedom to choose, even if they chose to do a bad thing, like jumping off a cliff, denies an essential way in which people attain information, ‘learn to resist compulsion, and develop strength of will. Again, such claim is irrational and only brings more harm to the individual than good. In its literally meaning, if a psycho chooses to jump off a cliff, anti- paternalists would let him be because it is his own choice, which is inappropriate. How can they ‘learn to resist’ if no one is preventing them from such behavior?
In addition, the cost of jumping off a cliff will be an early death, but if prevented the benefit will outweigh this cost and the individual will continue with life and carry on with their goals in life. The government under this condition is justified to interfere with people’s liberty in order to protect them from self-inflicted harms and from their own self-interests as well as benefitting them in the long run.
Overall, Dworking’s justifications of paternalism indicated that more good is done to the individual through paternalistic actions (policies and regulations) than harm. The first justification deals with dangerous decisions that have far reaching and irreversible results. The permanent consequences of a dangerous decision like taking addictive drugs includes: cancer, heart attack, stoke and early deaths. Therefore, the government responded by creating the like the National Drug Policy 2007, which aims at protecting the individual from harms of using drugs. The results were progressive as the percentage of drug users decrease throughout the years.
On the contrary, anti-paternalism advocate John Mill argues that paternalism denies the people of their freedom to decide what is best for them, as well as undermining their chances of learning from their mistakes. This idea brings more harm than good to the individual because if people are left to do what they want and ended up facing the cost of their actions, what is the point of learning when the damage has already been made? Moreover, the second justification states that state can only intervene if the subject of coercion is behaving under mental compulsion. The government introduces the Suicide Prevention Policy 2006, which resulted in the gradual decrease of suicide incidents in New Zealand. All in all, paternalist policies under the given justifications and examples, provides more good than harm; also its benefits outweigh the costs of individuals choices.