Sometimes I find the paternalistic mindset to be so darned fascinating. What is it that drives a person to initiate force against another human being to protect the latter from making bad choices in life? Why can’t the paternalist just mind his own business?
The latest example, one of the craziest that has come out of paternalistic mind in some time, is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of large-size soft drinks in private establishments. Concerned that New Yorkers are too fat and have unhealthy dietary habits, he wants to take charge of the problem by prohibiting them from drinking too much soft drink. Never mind that he’s not banning refills or the purchase of two or more drinks. He’s convinced that his inane proposal will finally get every New Yorker on the cover of Shape magazine.
It is one absolutely ridiculous proposal. One New Yorker put it well in a statement to the New York Times, “It’s like dictatorship. I’m sorry, but if you want to be obese, you want to be obese.”
What the paternalistic mind simply is unable to process is the notion that people should be free to live their lives any way they choose, so long as their conduct is peaceful.
The paternalist wants everyone to be “free” so long as everyone’s choices are the ones that paternalist deems are the right ones. If the person makes what the paternalist considers to be an irresponsible choice, the paternalist wants him punished with fines and incarceration or worse.
What is most important to the paternalist is conformity, enforced by the state. That inevitably means “order and stability.” That’s where the dictatorship part comes in. To ensure that everyone makes the right choices, the state employs its military forces and police forces to ensure that everyone makes the right choices.
That’s how we have ended up not only with inane proposals like Bloomberg’s but also with such things as drug laws, Social Security, Medicare, education grants, and foreign aid to dictatorships. If we didn’t have such laws, the paternalists tell us, some people would be ingesting drugs, some wouldn’t take care of their retirement, some wouldn’t help others in need, some wouldn’t handle their healthcare, some wouldn’t educate their children properly, some wouldn’t donate money to brutal foreign dictatorships, and some would drink super-sized soft drinks.
Needless to say, we libertarians oppose paternalism in all its shades and variations, from Bloomberg’s inane soft-drink proposal to the federal government’s Social Security program, the crown jewel of the paternalistic state.
For us libertarians, the test of a free society is not whether people are free to make responsible choices but rather whether they are free to make what everyone else might consider are irresponsible choices. After all, under the paternalist concept of freedom, people in North Korea, Cuba, and China are free, given that everyone in those countries is free to make the right choices and only the right choices.
In a genuinely free society, will there be people who ingest harmful mind-altering substances? Will there be obese people who continue eating fatty foods and drinking high-calorie soft drinks? Will there be people refusing to save for their retirement or their healthcare? Will there be people who refuse to help the poor? Will there be people who refuse to give their children the best education possible? Will there be people who refuse to donate to pro-U.S. dictators?
Yes to all of the above. But that’s what a genuinely free society is all about — the right to make whatever choices you want in life, so long as your conduct is peaceful.
Bloomberg’s proposal, like all other paternalistic measures, is an attack on individual freedom, free markets, and private property. It is based on the collectivist philosophy of the hive, a philosophy that says that people live for the greater good of society, not for their own happiness. Bloomberg’s soft-drink proposal, like all other paternalistic measures, is irreconcilable with the principles of a free society.