Sunday, March 14, 2010

Pure and Impure Paternalism

Let’s begin with a fundamental distinction between pure and impure forms of paternalism. Paternalistic intervention is an intentional act of beneficence where a benefactor violates the liberty of a beneficiary in order to provide an unwanted benefit. Beneficiaries and benefactors can be either individuals or groups. Within group-based paternalism, we can also differentiate between governmental paternalism (state paternalism) and non-governmental paternalism. Under state paternalism government acts as the benefactor by exercising the coercive power of government via regulations and taxation. For now let’s focus on group-based state paternalism.

Pure state paternalism is where the group whose liberty is being violated is identical to the group that may benefit (seat belt laws). Impure paternalism is when the group whose liberty is violated is larger than the group that is targeted for benefit. (laws that restrict access to sudafed)

Another feature of state paternalism is that it often benefits the benefactor and/or third parties, and therefore, masks conflict of interest and corporate welfare. Most paternalistic laws are initiated by providers. In modern societies, acts of pure paternalism are extremely rare. After all, in the “real world” of state paternalism, politically well-connected third parties almost always benefit such as: daycare centers, beauty salons, tatoo parlors, mental institutions, drug companies, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Seat belt laws benefit the engineers and manufacturers that produce seat belts. Drug laws benefit the alcohol industry and criminal organizations. (Admittedly, this is an empirical observation. If I'm wrong, please correct me!)

Now what can we say about those intended paternalistic benefits? Well, the fact of the matter is that many (if not most) paternalistic interventions enforced by the state, benefit the providers much more than the targeted beneficiaries. Do you really believe that laws that restrict access to marijuana protect anyone other than pharmaceutical companies, local police departments, and the employees of the Drug Enforcement Agency? (Another empirical observation!) As a modest proposal, let me suggest that justified paternalism requires that beneficiaries actually benefit from their loss of liberty. Libertarians tend to be highly critical of state paternalism because it rarely benefits intended beneficiaries and almost always masks corporate welfare. I’ll try to develop this theme in subsequent blog entries.


Bill Glod said...

Hi Ron,

I'm very interested in seeing how this project develops! Two minor comments:

(1) You use seat belt laws as an example pure paternalism, but then you mention how seat belt laws benefit the engineers and manufacturers who produce them. Isn't this, then, a case of impure paternalism?

(2) Is it merely a necessary condition for justified paternalism that beneficiaries actually benefit from their loss of liberty? That is, are there moral considerations which might militate against even those coercive paternalistic interventions that actually benefit their intendeded recipients and do not wrong (levy excessive costs) on other persons?

Freedom's Philosopher said...

Thanks Bill. Two great posts. I just now addressed your second point, so let's zero in on the first one.

You're right! In fact, pure paternalism may be impossible. Maybe all paternalistic acts are impure. The manufacturers of seat belts benefit from seat belt laws. If I paternalistically try to talk a stranger out of committing suicide, I could have spent that time reading a book or playing guitar. So there really is paternalistic "no free lunch."

And as you suggest, sometimes paternalistic interventions shift costs onto third parties without their consent. I presume automobile manufacturers would prefer to NOT install seat belts. By talking that stranger out of commiting suicide, I might be perpetuating years of spouse abuse. How this for a tentative hypothesis: pure paternalism is impossible in finite world compised of social animals? nstraine

Tekron said...

In a sense drug laws aid alcohol industry as well as illegal drug organizations, however if drugs were legal those could make for markets in which there is further benefit to be had; take example medical marijuana, or the idea of legalizing marijuana and the amount of revenue it could generate. Cigarettes and alcohol are a huge industry; to me, it's sad most countries make it legal considering both are worse than marijuana.....but guess what -- the market was here because beer was here first. If the first American president was from Jamaica, I bet you alcohol could be illegal, and marijuana could be what alcohol, or even cigarettes are to the US economy -- nvm the fact that normalized and socially accepted, the number of people smoking marijuana would cause probably MOST people not to ever want to smoke cigarettes. Good work! I agree with you -- just looking into it further!