Tuesday, 4 November 2014


I reprised paternalism and public health in a column at Werewolf; I'm to be contributing a column there on an ongoing basis. Read the whole thing; here's a snippet.
In the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, economists, myself included, generally expect that, on average and in most cases, people make the best decisions they can given the information available to them and the goals they have. For this we’re sometimes criticised as rationalistic and for expecting too much of humanity’s crooked timber. The criticism does not generally stand: economists’ conclusions do not rely so heavily on fragile rationality assumptions. All we really need is that people do the best they can with what they have, and that the costs of errors from presupposing others’ ends and dictating to them their means outweigh the costs of errors individuals might make on their own. The alternative view holds that individuals generally cannot be expected to find their own paths and walk them; instead, they need nudges and constraints against harmful choices and encouragement of better ones.
British essayist Thomas Carlyle made the case for such constraints in his 1850 pamphlet when he wrote, in opposition to the political economists of his day,
“The true liberty of man, you [economists] would say, consisted in his finding out, or being forced to find out the right path, and walk thereon. To learn, or to be taught, what work he actually was able for; and then, by permission, persuasion, and even compulsion, to set about doing of the same! … If you do know better than I what is good and right, I conjure thee in the name of God, force me to do it, were it by never such brass collars, whips and handcuffs, leave me not to walk over precipices!”
Carlyle’s discussion of collars, whips and handcuffs was not metaphorical: his pamphlet urged America not to abandon slavery, which he viewed as an enlightened paternalistic intervention that furthered the best interest of black American slaves who, in his view, otherwise would never learn the discipline of work and consequently could never become fully human. John Stuart Mill’s opposition to Carlyle’s views on slavery led Carlyle to name economics the Dismal Science.
Mill began from a polar opposite point. In “On Liberty”, he wrote that the state has no business interfering in the lives of individuals except where strong risk of harm to others obtains. He argued this not because we do not care about each other, but rather because that care has to be expressed in ways other than lashes, whether physical or metaphorical. We can persuade and cajole, but we cannot force. He noted that while the drunkard may neglect his family, the harm is in the neglect, not the drunkenness; someone else who is similarly callous towards their family while sober does as much harm. Mill writes,
“No person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or a policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty. Whenever, in short, there is a definite case, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law.”
Mill later presciently argues that if we start counting as harm the distaste one feels about the actions of another, then there is little bound.


  1. Some have apparently learnt little from 160 years of misguided meddling. Today's 'nudges' are little more than recycled-Carlyleism, tarted up to accommodate 21st century sensibilities.

    Of course, such nudges only ever apply to others' behaviour, never our own.

  2. The Greens have now stripped Browning of his "natural health" portfolio, with admonitory words to the effect of "around here, we use evidence-based medicine".