Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Paternalism: Weakening our minds?

There are proponents now of a wide array of paternalistic government programs – forced saving plans, restrictions on products and activities that can hurt the consumer, etc. It’s hard for me to entertain the notion that what a well-informed person chooses to do is not in that person’s interest: If you choose to skydive, even if I would not, it must be that you prefer the life in which you do it to the one in which you don’t. Right?

But let’s try supposing that paternalistic programs work: that is, that the people they coerce are made happier. If so, it is because those coerced would, if left alone, make the wrong decision. Paternalistic policies keep a tendency to make bad decisions from hurting the decision-maker.

Does that, to some extent, undermine the mechanism that motivates people to manage their impulses well? Could it lead to weaker-willed people, unable to make good decisions on their own?

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