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Paternalism: A Faulty Analogy

January 30, 2003

Much of what we "know" is by analogy to something else. That is why so much of what is said and written is couched in those terms. But that is also dangerous, because any analogy, however helpful, is misleading if pushed too far or used in the wrong context. As a result, analogies can be abused to mislead as well as inform. And abuse often predominates in public discourse, where sound bites can pass for serious thought.

One such major political abuse is justifying (or criticizing) government policies on the basis of their supposed "paternalism." There are crucial differences between parental decision making "for your own good" as a child and government policies "for your own good" as an adult. The analogy just doesn't hold up.

Does the government care as much for you as your parents? Documented examples are hard to find. But if not, the likelihood that "paternalistic" policies are really intended to benefit you are substantially smaller.

That explains why, so often, paternalism has provided cover for special interest legislation (e.g., "unfair competition" laws so vague they make it open season for costly lawsuits about anything and "consumer protection" regulations that are really barriers to exclude potential competitors). Further, for government policies to be justified in this regard would require that people care more about American children as a whole when voting than they do about their own children when they raise them.

Does the government know as much about you as your parents?  There may be some situations where the government "knows better" for us than we do. But if so, the solution is to provide people the information, then let them decide for themselves, not to coerce them against their will.

Further, how often does the government know all the important details of individual character and circumstance that are important to solving problems as well as those directly involved? "One size fits all" government programs make it all but impossible to make productive use of such knowledge.

Government programs tend to be highly bureaucratic and inflexible (and all but impossible to end, even when any usefulness is long past), while parents can learn from experience and tailor choices to changing circumstances. Moreover, if the government knows so much, why does it create so many programs that operate at cross purposes (such as crop price supports, which reduce food affordability, and food stamps, intended to make food more affordable for the poor)?

Does the government use its own resources? Parents use their own resources in child-rearing—resources earned through voluntary, mutually beneficial market arrangements with others. But  government, with no resources of its own, takes them involuntarily from others. In the process, those people are harmed, left with fewer resources to address the issues they find most important (far fewer, with the average American family spending more on government than food, shelter and clothing combined).

Does the government seek to build character or develop appropriate behavior as much as parents?  Rather than teaching lessons to prepare people for making responsible and sensible choices for themselves, the government more often subsidizes the results of poor choices, making them more common.

And as more poor choices are made, they, in turn, become excuses to further reduce people's liberties to protect them from themselves (e.g., mandating motorcycle helmets because accident victims might impose health care costs on others, but which do so only because the government has already socialized most of those costs).

Justifying government policies on the basis of paternalism is just one of many analogies used to mislead people about their true nature and effects. Politicians and bureaucrats do not care as much or know as much about those affected as parents; they aren't as concerned with training people to make better decisions for themselves; and they take the resources from others against their will, which parents cannot. And the inevitable distortions and mistakes government policies create are then used as excuses for further government encroachment on our shrinking freedoms. That is far from a recipe for truly useful policy.

Given that many Americans are now taxed more heavily than medieval serfs, serfdom might be a much better analogy for paternalism's effects (as Friedrich Hayek suggested long ago in The Road to Serfdom ). Of course, we don't hear that from those who seek to "sell" such policies to the public. But recognizing the parallels to serfdom can provide a useful antidote to the paternalism analogies now used to rationalize government programs. As Thomas Jefferson said, "If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy."

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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