When is government paternalism justifiable?

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When is government paternalism justifiable?

Posted 16/12/2010 by Luke Buckmaster

Man smoking next to a non smoking sign
A core assumption of liberal societies is that individuals are the best judge of their own interests and therefore are best placed to make choices about how to live their lives. But what if a choice—say, to take adictive drugs or to smoke—is likely to be detrimental to the person involved? Can governments be justified in interfering with individual choices in the interests of the person concerned? This question is examined in the new Parliamentary Library Research Paper, Paternalism in social policy—when is it justifiable? 


The paper argues that paternalist policies may be considered justifiable under circumstances where:

  • high stakes decisions are involved
  • the decisions being made by individuals are irreversible and
  • it is possible to identify failures in people’s reasoning.

 The paper also argues that if a paternalist intervention can be justified in terms of people’s own values and preferences (e.g. they express a preference not to smoke but find it difficult to quit), then it is also more likely to be acceptable.


 These criteria help clarify when paternalism might be justfied but they do not address the important question of what forms of paternalism may be considered appropriate. The paper suggests four principles that may be used to help decide whether various forms of paternalist intervention are appropriate:

  •  discrimination—to what extent does the intervention discriminate between those for whom paternalism is deemed necessary and those for whom it is not?
  • proportionality—is the intervention the minimum necessary to achieve the effect of protecting those subject to the policy? Is it proportionate to the problem being addressed by the intervention?
  • accountability—to what extent has the government made the intervention transparent to its citizens? and
  • efficacy—is there a reasonable prospect that the intervention will be effective?
Finally, the paper highlights how difficult it is to get clear evidence of the efficacy or otherwise of paternalistic interventions. It does this by using as an example the debate over evidence related to the policy of compulsory government management of welfare payments—known as income management.


While the paper seeks to provide some guidance as to where and in what forms paternalist policies might be said to be justifiable, it also highlights the complexities associated with such interventions and their evaluation. The main contribution of the paper is that it illustrates the need for policy makers to be especially clear about their motivations and objectives where it comes to paternalist interventions.


(Image sourced from: http://bit.ly/ibXuDq)


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