Autonomy v. Paternalism: Arguments For And Against The “Nanny State.”

What do mandatory seat belt, motorcycle helmet and “no sweetened drinks in containers larger than 16 oz.” laws have in common: They are all examples of paternalistic, i.e., “government knows what’s best for you,” legislation.  In a country that places a premium on individual autonomy and the notion, a la John Stuart Mill and On Liberty, that people should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as they don’t hurt someone else (Mill’s “Harm Principle”), paternalistic  legislation always provokes very strong feelings.

But some folks are taking a stand against Mill and in favor of paternalism.  Sarah Conly’s fascinating new book, Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, is an example of such a stand.  The brilliant Cass Sunstein reviews her book here.  Here is a taste of his review:

[Conly’s] starting point is that in light of the recent findings, we should be able to agree that Mill was quite wrong about the competence of human beings as choosers. “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.” With that claim in mind, Conly insists that coercion should not be ruled out of bounds. She wants to go far beyond nudges. In her view, the appropriate government response to human errors depends not on high-level abstractions about the value of choice, but on pragmatic judgments about the costs and benefits of paternalistic interventions. Even when there is only harm to self, she thinks that government may and indeed must act paternalistically so long as the benefits justify the costs.

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