Sweet Temptation of Paternalism

Paul Cézanne: The Artist's Father, Reading // Public domain
Paul Cézanne: The Artist's Father, Reading // Public domain

Sometimes it feels so good to let go of the reins of life and put your own worries and cares in someone else’s hands. It is preferable to entrust those worries to professionals who better understand and are better equipped to deal with them.

Lithuanian (and not only) society and politicians seem to be aware of this law of supply and demand, or at least intuitively sense it. The paternalistic approach, in which the state actively intervenes in the private sphere and starts to regulate the lives of adult citizens, is in principle not alien to any of the major political parties.

The only difference is in the objects of the desired control: some believe that legislation should solve social and economic ills, others hope to change citizens’ behavioral patterns and motivations, while others would like to establish and control citizens’ morals and values through political means. At least some citizens expect public institutions to solve their problems, fulfill their needs and meet their expectations. But it is not all that simple – beyond the obvious practical challenges, there are more general political and moral issues.

First, it is useful to define the meaning of paternalism. A parent who prevents his or her child from eating glass found in the sandbox is, in the true sense of the word, engaging in paternalism. If they did not, they would not be very good parents. Paternalism comes from the Latin word pater, meaning “father”. So, paternalism is semantically related to fatherhood.

However, we are more interested in the narrower concept of paternalism as the restriction of citizens’ freedoms or interference in their lives by public authorities where they could or should take care of themselves or their relatives. As a political concept, paternalism refers to a certain analogy between the power of parents over their children and the power of the state over its subjects (citizens and residents).

Advocates of state paternalism believe that if some people (or a majority of them) are not able to take care of themselves, to make responsible decisions on one issue or another, their personal freedom and autonomy can be limited by the law and state institutions. Banning the unrestricted sale of poisons may be a form of paternalism, but many people, even those who see it as paternalism, would see it as justified. However, there are serious issues here that are worth constantly reminding ourselves of and rethinking.

By limiting sugar in food, for example, we are aiming to achieve something good: for the individual, for the community, for the state (saving resources for medicine, social needs, and services etc.). The extent to which such restrictions achieve their objectives of addressing social ills is a separate question.

However, the latter question often allows us to escape from the more complex issue: what criteria will we use to see paternalism as permissible, desirable, or aspirational in some situations, and where will we consider it worth drawing the line and prioritizing human freedom and responsibility?

The paternalistic approach can also take other relevant forms: social security mechanisms that make people dependent on benefits rather than helping them to “get back on their feet” and empowering them; legislative and jurisprudential practices that seek to regulate and legislate the whole of social reality to the point where there is no room left for freedom, either outside of the confines of the law or within the boundaries of the law itself.

The temptation to create paternalistic relationships is obvious. The Latin res publica refers to common or public affairs for a reason. After all, the political community is about working together to solve the challenges, problems, and conflicts we face, and to pursue common goals. If we see that some of our fellow citizens are unable to take care of themselves, is it not worth helping them with political instruments or even restricting their freedom for their own good?

Michael Oakeshott, one of the great British philosophers, saw the problem of paternalism as both moral and political: a paternalistic state treats its citizens as children. But if adults become children, who takes the place of adults in the state? Yes, people are far from being rational or wise, they often make mistakes. But understanding of human limitations should also apply to how we perceive the state we are building and its institutions.

From Oakeshott’s perspective, caring for the moral prosperity or well-being of one’s fellow citizens must by no means be understood as merely directing them or controlling their attitudes and behavior. It can also be expressed through the recognition of their autonomy and dignity.

But the British philosopher’s central argument is that the political community of citizens is neither an extension of the family or tribe, nor a purposeful association (like a company or other organization). However, it is not an easy task to understand that the freedom of the individual and of the political community does not fit into a blueprint, an easily definable goal, or a catchy slogan.

The article was originally published at IQ.

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