Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Defending paternalism

I have been rereading Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom – one of the books that have most influenced me. I am particularly interested in Friedman’s views on paternalism which probably determine my own and which torpedo some of the extreme claims of libertarians and those who see any attempt to limit self-destructive or irrational behavior as an unwarranted attack on individual freedoms. It need not be. Friedman argues:
‘Freedom is a tenable objective only for responsible individuals. We do not believe in freedom for madmen or children….Paternalism is inescapable for those who whom we designate as not responsible…

The clearest case, perhaps, is that of madmen…It would be nice if we could rely on voluntary activities of individuals to house and care for the madmen. But I think we
cannot rule out the possibility that such charitable activities will be inadequate…For this reason, we may be willing to arrange for their care through government…

The paternalistic ground for government activity is in many ways the most troublesome to a liberal; for it involves the acceptance of a principle – that some shall decide for others – which he finds objectionable in most applications…

Yet there is no use pretending that problems are simpler than in fact they are. There is no avoiding the need for some measure of paternalism….’

The difficult question here is what a ‘responsible individual’ is. Definitions of ‘responsible’ include the idea of being able to make rational or moral decisions on one’s own and therefore being answerable for one’s behavior. I suppose the question then is whether a 20 year old who decides to use heroin or smoke cigarettes is being responsible in this sense. I am unsure whether the behavior is immoral but it doesn’t seem rational, except in an uninteresting tautological sense. How do you judge whether paternalism makes sense in this situation. Friedman says that the issue is determined by a debate not by some abstract philosophical principle:
‘There is no formula that can tell us where to stop. We must rely on our fallible judgment and, having reached a judgment, on our ability to persuade our fellow men that it is the correct judgment, or their ability to persuade us to modify our views. We must put our faith, here as elsewhere, in a consensus reached by imperfect and biased men through free discussion and trial and error.’

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

What does Milton say about paternalism, Harry?

conrad said...

I'm not sure why your example is irrational, so a better example would be good. If I take substance X, I get positive response Y -- a common occurence -- its just things are within societal norms and others are not.

Anonymous said...

Conrad, if you want any credibility, the word 'societal' is not a real word. The word you are after is social.

conrad said...

I don't care about pedantic prescriptive use of English, excluding for articles. However, since the MW thinks it is a word, I'll just assume you are wrong. If you want to be pedantic, it might be a good idea to check that you are actually correct next time.

http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/societal

Muffin top said...

I saw it on the internet so it must be true!

Comment or article, you've put something flawed in a public forum so you're now open to criticism. How can we expect punters to understand economics (or any other discipline) if we make up unnecessary words. It doesn't make us appear smarter and more trustworthy. It just makes us look like pretentious wankers. Apologies if that was your intention.

I was actually expecting you to respond with a list of reasons you don't care. 'Firstly let me say that firstly is not a word. Secondly, I don't care about pedantic...'

Sorry Harry for clogging your blog.

Muffin top

hc said...

Got it Melaleuca, thanks.
Conrad, it is just an example.

conrad said...

I think you are better off arguing about what are and what are not words with the editors of the Oxford and the Merrium Webster dictionaries than me. So please ask them to remove the word.

I agree, that we should stop cloggin HC's blog. Sorry HC.

Anonymous said...

Muffin Top is obviously an appropriate description as well as a moniker.

Societal is an adjecticve according to my dictionary (Collins) and this one: http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/society?view=uk

I trust the Oxford has it right.

derrida derider said...

Just the same, I also find it annoying when people prefer pompous words and expressions formed from simple ones with the same meaning - "societal" for "social", "orientate" for "orient", "make use of" for "use", etc.

In fact, people who irrationally mangle the English language this way are clearly in need of the loving hand of the State to correct them.