Two kinds of anti-paternalism

According to Wikipedia, paternalism is a behavior, by a person, organization or state, which limits some person or group’s liberty or autonomy for their own good. Anti-paternalism, it then follows, is the view that we should not limit some person or group’s liberty or autonomy for their own good. In the kinds of topics I talk about, paternalism generally involves the government requiring someone to buy something, e.g. health insurance. The anti-paternalists oppose such required purchases, and think people should be allowed to spend the money as they choose.

As regular readers probably know, I support the idea that we should make poor people not poor by distributing more income to them. Recently, I found someone suggesting that this idea was anti-paternalist, which to many crowds is code for libertarian ridiculousness. I never considered this to be an anti-paternalist idea, anymore than organizing a union to bargain wage increases is anti-paternalist. Both seek to get more income for people so that they can have a better, more comfortable life. Paternalism just isn’t even in the discussion.

Whether cash transfers are actually anti-paternalist is a semantic discussion not worth having. However, if we are going to call such transfers anti-paternalist, we need to distinguish between two kinds of anti-paternalism: anti-paternalism aimed at increasing autonomy and anti-paternalism aimed at increasing welfare.

Autonomy-motivated anti-paternalism objects to forcing someone to do something because it limits their freedom to do what they want. On the most extreme end, supporters of this kind of anti-paternalism oppose even efforts to keep people from doing heroin, not because they think prohibition is a failure, but because they think there is no justification for limiting the autonomy of individuals in that way.

Welfare-motivated anti-paternalism objects to forcing someone to do something because it harms their welfare. The cash transfer case is especially relevant. It is assumed that the circumstances, needs, and wants of individuals are extremely diverse. Providing one-size-fits-all services and benefits will therefore fail to capture what would actually be best for a large chunk of people. It is assumed further that, generally speaking, individuals have a good sense of what they need and want, and will direct cash they receive towards satisfying those needs and wants. From these two assumptions — which can be empirically tested — it follows that unrestricted cash benefits will boost welfare outcomes more so than many in-kind benefit programs.

It should not come as any great shock that, in many cases, self-directed consumption will allow individuals to better satisfy their needs and wants than consumption imposed from without. Since it is welfare-motivated instead of autonomy-motivated, I wouldn’t call that an anti-paternalist position. But if others think it qualifies, then it should not be objectionable to remark that welfare-motivated anti-paternalism is a pretty good thing.