Podium: The dangers of paternalism

Click to follow
Perri 6

From a lecture by the Demos research associate delivered to the Westminster Ethical Policy Forum

IT IS only 40 years or so since the late Douglas Jay infamously declared, with a confidence that few politicians in the developed world would claim today: "There are some things about which the Gentleman in Whitehall really does know best."

Whatever the Gentleman in Whitehall may have thought, most of us today think that the state has rather fewer rights to do us good without our consent than do our families and friends, and perhaps even fewer than the professionals such as doctors, lawyers and ministers of religion to whom we turn.

When may government pursue our benefit, as politicians or officials see it, when we have not specifically authorised them to do so?

Welfare to work programmes are sometimes described as paternalistic. The American professor and advocate of "hassling" the poor and unemployed, Lawrence Mead, has described them as "the new paternalism", because they involve coercion.

Actually, I am far from sure that coercion in these cases is principally justified on paternalistic grounds.

Typically, at least in the case of the British government's New Deal, the justification offered is that citizens have obligations to taxpayers in a kind of social contract, only to burden them with the costs of their upkeep in emergencies and to keep that burden to a minimum. An obligation upon citizens not to harm other's interests is not coercion for their own good.

In general, it should be said that there are real risks in reinforcing weak arguments for paternalism with the non-paternalistic argument that citizens have a duty not to dump the costs of their support on the taxpayer, or not to harm others in the way in which they live their lives. I think on balance that there are such moral duties.

But it does not follow that the Government has the right to use the force of law to enforce those moral duties in every case.

For example, in many cases of health-related behaviour, the others who may be harmed, however, are principally taxpayers, who may have to pick up the bill for the medical care. Now that the NHS is seeking to recover these costs from the vehicle insurance plans of the individuals' affected, the ground for government paternalism may be undermined. However, the principle states that, if individuals were to consent to the regulation - and many, it seems clear, would - it is permissible even if there are additional contractual requirements upon individuals for any private insurance they may have covering such risks.

On the other hand, the beef- on-the-bone ban seems to fail several limbs of the test. It is far from clear that citizens would consent if we were told the full information available to ministers at the time it was imposed, and if the real reason was not one of public health but of negotiating strategies in Europe in seeking the lifting of the export ban, then it is not even clear that the Government's explanation of the ban was in good faith.

The evidence seems to be lacking of great diligence in finding out what would work to prevent Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The evidence might have justified paternalistic health warnings or the publication of information for consumers to make up their own minds, but not a paternalistic ban.

In the last fortnight, there has been a huge moral panic in the newspapers about genetically modified foods. William Hague has declared his party to be in favour of an outright ban, and the Prime Minister has expressed alarm too.

I don't want to spend any time tonight on the pseudo-science peddled by many of the alarmists, or to devote any time to the positive environmental benefits that might flow from getting genetic modification right.

I will just say that some of the causal mechanisms of gene flow between species they claim to be worried about are, for all practical purposes, biologically inconceivable, and I do want to point out that no one has ever come up with a single case of harm to human health from any of the mainstream genetically modified foods in the supermarkets.

Fundamentally, however, I do want to suggest that we need to think long and hard before we rush to banning anything. There are good reasons for giving consumers information on food labels about what they are choosing, and letting them decide for themselves. But there is no possible justification for politicians claiming to know better than I or any other shopper or diner does what kind of food we want to eat, and banning things that many of us may well want. That is paternalism too far.