How is paternalism different to libertarianism?

This document is a series of summaries from academic papers broadly concerning liberty and paternalism, in a hope that the works of academia are rendered more accessible to audiences who otherwise would not engage with those ideas.

John Stuart Mill

On Liberty (abridged)


This essay is one that advocates that self-protection is the only way in which a society can interfere with another person within it. It does this through explain what liberties a free society must have and why liberty is essential.

A free society must have liberty of conscience, which allows people to think whatever they like. Freedom of speech and press are considered to be so similar to freedom of speech that they are included in this as well. The second is freedom to pursue hobbies and enjoyments that we see fit, as long as we do not harm other in the process. Finally, the freedom to join like-minded individuals in an interest or a goal. These are key characteristics of a free society.

We then pass onto the importance of liberty in the improvement of society. Mill says that there are a very few individuals who are so brilliant and original that they are capable of reforming and improving the current state of society. The issue with forcing everyone to behave in a certain way is that human society becomes a “stagnant pool”. We need fresh and different ideas to show the way for other people in society, who otherwise themselves become people that follow others and do not use their intelligence or reasoning to guide them.

He therefore advocates a “disinterested benevolence” that all people should adopt to ensure that people wish good on others, but do not feel that their way of living or opinions are superior and should therefore be conformed to. If there are individual in that society that do not realise their potential, do not improve or respect themselves, we should try to help their situation or try to discourage it with social taboos. However, if that person goes further and infringes on the rights of others (uses violence), they should be punished as an example of others of how that behaviour is not tolerated.

These parameters as to how a society should manage these liberties is a crucial part of the essay. The crux of the essay relies on the idea that though it can be difficult for mankind to live in a society where each person behaves (to an extent) to how they see fit, the alternative of forcing a status quo of behaviour is an inferior alternative.

Gerald Dworkin



This paper examines the limitations of the utilitarian theory advocated by Mill and looks at certain caveats in which in fact paternalism must in fact be used in society. Paternalism here is defined as when the state interferes with the autonomy of individuals for reasons of improving “welfare, good, happiness needs interests or values of the person being coerced”.

One of the key assumptions that J.S Mill makes is that individuals know their own interests best. In fact, Dworkin argues that the consensus that people are in fact often mal-informed and cannot join what they want with what they actually do[1], and so are not in fact the best judges of how they behave. For example, people may be aware of the dangers of smoking, may want to stop, but continues to do so irrationally due to poor calculations. In this case, using coercion in fact helps people to achieve what they already want to do.

This is also another point which is that if people are acting on incorrect information, then the state can stop them as if they were perfectly well informed, they would not choose to act in that way. A good example of this is if a person thinks that jumping out of a window will not kill him. If he knew that he would die, then he wouldn’t want to do it so the state bridges that knowledge gap.

Another is addressed by Mill in himself; being that a man cannot sell himself into slavery, as this would prevent his liberty further down the line. He does not have freedom to repudiate his freedom. Additionally, in some cases, people may be in an irrational and emotional state of mind, where they may want to commit suicide. In these cases, he suggests mandatory “cooling off periods” where people need to reflect and try to return into a rational mindset. The limit for these infringements on liberty is the idea that a rational person would consent to these infringements.

Overall, the essay proves that within certain parameters (state providing valid reasons for their paternalism and the society trying all other methods before infringing liberty) and those aforementioned, paternalism could and should be used to interferes with a person’s liberty.

Robert Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Libertarian Paternalism is not an Oxymoron


Libertarianism is a political ideology that encourages freedom of choice and liberty for citizens and companies in society. Paternalism is often seen to be the opposite of this (see definition in introduction above), but this paper aims to prove they are compatible and should be implemented in modern laws.

The idea is that the state should deliberately try to move people in “self-promoting directions”, which revolves on a series of premises.

The first is that the role that the state must play in the lives of citizens is inevitable as the government needs to make decisions (which are by definition paternalistic) on issues such as public defence. Consequently, the question is not should the government be paternalistic, but in what way should it do so.

The second is that paternalism does not in fact always involve coercion. In the case of a state-cafeteria putting fruit as the closest option for its customers, it is encouraging them to eat more fruit, but that can still “opt-out”.

This idea of being able to “opt-out” is an essential feature of Libertarian Paternalism, as instead of the state having an idea and forcing people to follow it, it allows people to be able to continue to have liberty and ignoring the state.

A key reason for this being needed is mentioned in the previous summary. It is that people do not always make better choices then a 3rd party would do for them. Take diet, where though people want to eat less un-healthy food, they continue to do so due to lack of self-control. Another example is that if people have a de facto of being part of a system, it is empirically proven that they choose to opt-out less than they otherwise would.

Therefore, the state needs to guide people to making better choices without forcing them in a way that would compromise their liberty.

There are also rules of thumb that the author advocates such as finding a system that “minimizes the number of opt-outs”, which as you can see would force the state to try a make system that people would actually be better off staying a part of.

Overall, if one accepts this approach to how government should behave, it would heavily impact many of the laws we currently have. The authors finish by saying that this way of organising government is far better than the alternative of “inept neglect”.

What do you think is the best form of political theory to guide our government practises? Feel free to add you point of view in the comments section.

%d bloggers like this: