Let’s begin with a fundamental distinction between pure and impure forms of paternalism. Paternalistic intervention is an intentional act of beneficence where a benefactor violates the liberty of a beneficiary in order to provide an unwanted benefit. Beneficiaries and benefactors can be either individuals or groups. Within group-based paternalism, we can also differentiate between governmental paternalism (state paternalism) and non-governmental paternalism. Under state paternalism government acts as the benefactor by exercising the coercive power of government via regulations and taxation. For now let’s focus on group-based state paternalism.
Pure state paternalism is where the group whose liberty is being violated is identical to the group that may benefit (seat belt laws). Impure paternalism is when the group whose liberty is violated is larger than the group that is targeted for benefit. (laws that restrict access to sudafed)
Another feature of state paternalism is that it often benefits the benefactor and/or third parties, and therefore, masks conflict of interest and corporate welfare. Most paternalistic laws are initiated by providers. In modern societies, acts of pure paternalism are extremely rare. After all, in the “real world” of state paternalism, politically well-connected third parties almost always benefit such as: daycare centers, beauty salons, tatoo parlors, mental institutions, drug companies, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Seat belt laws benefit the engineers and manufacturers that produce seat belts. Drug laws benefit the alcohol industry and criminal organizations. (Admittedly, this is an empirical observation. If I'm wrong, please correct me!)
Now what can we say about those intended paternalistic benefits? Well, the fact of the matter is that many (if not most) paternalistic interventions enforced by the state, benefit the providers much more than the targeted beneficiaries. Do you really believe that laws that restrict access to marijuana protect anyone other than pharmaceutical companies, local police departments, and the employees of the Drug Enforcement Agency? (Another empirical observation!) As a modest proposal, let me suggest that justified paternalism requires that beneficiaries actually benefit from their loss of liberty. Libertarians tend to be highly critical of state paternalism because it rarely benefits intended beneficiaries and almost always masks corporate welfare. I’ll try to develop this theme in subsequent blog entries.