Paternalism can be kind, just not to present-you

You may want to file this under ‘incredibly obvious’, but I haven’t seen it noted elsewhere.

Liberals and libertarians have an instinctive aversion to paternalism. Their key objection is: how can anyone else be expected to know what is good for you, better than you do?

This is usually true, but it neglects a coherent justification for many paternalistic policies that doesn’t require that anyone know more than you. The paternalist could be fine with their policy being bad for ‘present-you’ if it benefits ‘future-you’ even more. But don’t you care about your future self’s welfare too? Sure, but maybe not as much as they do, relative to your current welfare!

Confusion about the intent of the paternalistic policy is generated by the fact that it is natural to say “this policy exists to help you”, without noting which instance of ‘you’ it is meant to help – you now, you tomorrow, you in ten years’ time, and so on.

While this justification would make sense especially often where people engaged in ‘hyperbolic discounting’ and as a result were ‘time inconsistent’, it does not rely on that. All it requires is that,

  • there are things you could do now that would benefit your future self, at the expense of your present self, and;
  • the paternalists’ ‘altruistic’ discount rate for the target’s welfare is lower than the discount rate the target has for their own welfare.

The first is certainly true, while the latter is often true in my experience.

In the near-far construal theory often used on this blog, us-now and immediate gratification are both ‘near’, while ourselves in the future, other people, and other people in the future are all ‘far’. In far mode we will want to encourage other folks to act toward their future selves in ways our far view thinks they ought to – usually patiently.

More intuitively: it’s easier to stick to a commitment to help a friend stay on their diet, than it is to stay to our diet ourselves. We don’t enjoy seeing our friends go without ice cream, but we like to see them reach their and our idealised goals even more. As La Rochefoucauld observed, “We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.” You could add that we all have strength enough to bear the delayed gratification of others.

If a paternalist really does have a lower discount rate in this way, they could justify all kinds of interventions that benefit someone’s future self: preventing suicide, reducing smoking, encouraging exercise, requiring people to save for emergencies and retirement, and so on. I often find these policies distasteful, but as I support a moral discount rate of zero (on valuable experiences), and almost all people are impatient in their own lives, I can’t justify a blanket opposition. We don’t give people an unrestricted freedom to harm their children, or strangers, just because they don’t care much about them. Why then should we give a young woman unrestricted freedom to hurt her far-off 60 year old self, just because they happen to pass through the same body at different points in time? I care about the 60 year old too, perhaps even more than that young woman does, relative to herself.

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  • Sister Y

    If you would apply this logic to allow serious interference with bodily integrity, such as forcibly preventing a suicide, would you also apply it to abortion? (That is, forcing abortions in some cases, forbidding them in others, on the ground that the forcer has more realistic sense of future welfare than the forcee.)

    •  The difference is that a pregnancy unwanted in near mode doesn’t bode well for far-mode welfare. This is true for some things and not for others.

      • Sister Y

        You have articulated a modern, specialized objection to a particular case of my question – something like: “In general, unwantedness of a pregnancy is a better signal of future poor well-being than an uninvolved outsider could ever have,” if I understand you correctly. This particular justification is unlikely to be shared (or even understood) by lawmakers, but let’s keep it as it is. This helpfully screens out the uncomfortable case of denying an abortion when it is desired by the mother – we can have our paternalism in comfortable (to us) cases, but also have specialized reasons why it shouldn’t apply in uncomfortable (to us) cases: paternalism for smokers and suicides, but not for pregnant women.

        What about when the mother, in hormone-charged near-mode, desires to keep a pregnancy, but an uninvolved outsider would realize that both she and her fetus would be harmed on net by keeping the pregnancy? Or when a suffering person desires to continue living, but an outsider would realize that he or she would likely suffer in ways he can’t appreciate in his fragile state? I think a new, specialized objection is necessary for each of those cases (forced abortion, murder). And probably a new objection for every situation in which paternalism is uncomfortable against our intuitions.

      • And probably a new objection for every situation in which paternalism is uncomfortable against our intuitions.

        The converse of libertarians, who must articulate a justification for each paternalistic measure.

  • Drewfus

    “You may want to file this under ‘incredibly obvious’”

    It is obvious – when someone (like yourself) points it out . Good post Robert.

    Bentham said “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”.

    Did he mean the greatest happiness and number now, or tomorrow – or was he just playing with abstractions? One of the defining ethics of the modern age should be totally clear about this, but is it?

    “If a paternalist really does have a lower discount rate in this way, they could justify all kinds of interventions that benefit someone’s future self”

    Have you considered the atrophying affect these interventions might have on those who effectively have their future-oriented cognition (partly) exported to the paternalists?

    Man and dog make a great team; man thinks, dog smells. Long-term, dogs stay relatively unintelligent, and mans’ olfactory sense atrophies. This has actually occured, so don’t forget to consider the unintended consequences of the paternalistic actions you might be tempted to suggest/support.

    • Thursday

      I think this has already happened.  A lot of the poor people who seem so lost in the modern world probably did ok in traditionalist societies where everyone kept a keen eye on everyone else.

    • Drewfus

      I believed until now that domesticated animals are less intelligent than wild ones. This BBC Horizon doc shows some very smart dogs – Dogs seem to have developed abilities that relate only to humans – like reading our facial expresions and barking as a sort of language that humans can understand. Also covered is the decades old breeding of Siberian foxes in Russia. They are now tame like puppies. There is also a control group – mind your fingers.

      What seems to have happened with dogs is that their domestication has traded-off some abilities for others, for which they are now better-off (they live with affluent humans in nice homes). Maybe this change in some way mirrors the our own great leap forward, around 50 kya – a huge increase in culture but with no corresponding change in brain capacity, but instead a more optimal trade-off of cognitive abilities. So what was dropped? One clue is that the bred-tame Siberian foxes have changed in appearance. They have more juvenile characteristics maintained into adulthood (shorter, curlier tale, bigger ears,…). These were not selected for, but occured in parallel with the artificial selection for less aggression.

  • Robert Koslover

    Well, unfortunately, most tyrants regard themselves as supremely benevolent, i.e., maintaining that all of their intentions and actions are to serve the best interests of everyone, at both individual and societal levels.  And unfortunately, such tyrants also tend to rely on essays such as yours to help justify both their power and their otherwise-despicable actions to far-too-gullible intelligentsia.  Essentially, and more-or-less equivalently, the basic problem is simply that power corrupts.  America’s founders understood that and tried to put into place a system that would tend to thwart the excessive accumulation of power in any one individual or branch of government.  They were right to do so.  And human nature has not changed.  Thus, the *risks* associated with placing great powers in the hands of others (so that they can ostensibly force us to do what is best for ourselves) are far greater than any potential rewards of doing so.  Yes, we limit the freedoms of our children, so that they may be taught how to behave in a manner that is acceptable to our society.  Children, by their very nature, need to nurtured, taught, protected, etc.  It is very wrong, and even more dangerous to any would-be free civilization, to treat mature, healthy, and mentally-competent adults in the same way.  Mr. Wiblin, I fully concede the possibility that someone else really knows what is better for me (despite the fact that I am a well-educated, healthy, and free adult) than I do.  So what?  Let them write all the essays, and give all the speeches, that they wish, telling me what they think I should do with my life.  But giving them police  power to force me to follow their advice, no matter how well-intentioned it is, is wrong.  This does not mean that the State should be powerless, but simply that its powers should be expressly limited to those that are absolutely necessary. Yes to law and order; no to paternalism.

    • the basic problem is simply that power corrupts

      Well, then, so does the power of my present self over my future self corrupt the former.

      • Robert Koslover

        Mr. Diamond, I salute (yes, I really do) your cleverness in devising that comment!  But please note that, as our Founders themselves noted, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”  I.e., *among* men, not *internally* to men!  For within our individual selves, we must rely upon our own knowledge, wisdom, consciences, etc, imperfect as they are.  If we do not do that, if instead we allow others to force their wills and choices upon us, then we are most-assuredly not free.  I choose freedom. 

  • This works as long as we can assume that the state will make paternalistic policies based on rational well-evidenced Utilitarian grounds.    If we have no guarantee of that, it’s still safer to limit the power of the state. 

    I’d rather forgo the possibilities of bettering other people’s lives according to Utilitarian principles than risk other people using the state to ‘better’ my life according to their principles.   Better to have the mutual agreement not to use the state to interfere with each other’s lives rather than throw the dice and see who gets control.

  • Falenas108

    “Liberals and libertarians have an instinctive aversion to paternalism.”

    This applies to conservatives as well.  Regulating the economy is a form of paternalism.

    • Thursday

      Actually traditionalist conservatives, like Russell Kirk, have tended to be lukewarm about capitalism.

  • Robin Hanson

    When you make a choice that trades off two future times against each other, those times will also be both in far mode, and so the later one won’t be discounted much relative to the earlier one. This suggests that you should prefer to implement the commitments that people try to make trading off different futures, relative to the paternalistic interventions others try to make.

  • Is there a reason to consider the discount rate bad, and having a lower discount rate better? It seems that your point #2 neglects why we have a discount rate in the first place, and the possibility that our individual rate might be balanced at a particular level for good reason, and that another’s higher rate towards our own future might be less than optimal. 

  • I have explicitly endorsed allowing parents “unrestricted freedom to harm their children”. There doesn’t really seem to be an externality across families. While there are genetic conflicts of interest between children and their parents, parents have much more shared genetic interests with their children than children do with the government. The me of right now also has much more shared genetic interests with the me of the future than future-me does with the government.

    • JW Ogden

      Further for the state to care for all the children seems philosophically impossible. I.e. suppose that some group of people think that their children should enjoy a childhood with a only small amount of the drudgery of school work and study and so they let the children do no homework and do not care much if they learn in school. Does the state have the right to push these students into a type of school that dominates their lives pushing them very hard to achieve academically.

    • That’s a pretty bad theory. Genetic interests don’t stop people killing themselves, and they don’t stop people killing their kids from time to time.

  • Ely Spears

    Wait, doesn’t this also require that the paternalists can determine better than I can what present actions will benefit my future self most? Maybe I think memories of college parties will benefit me more than extra wage resulting from more structured study. So what if the paternalists more value my future self; who makes them king of what’s good for future me? It seems like the same “only I know best” argument. What am I missing?

    • Robert Wiblin

      Well you could know what’s best for your future self and still decide not to do it. But yes, it does require that the government/voters have some idea. That’s where you and I may still doubt the merits of paternalism in practice.

  •  Anyone know what’s with this “flagged for review” label? Some technical glitch? Other recent posts seemed to have disappeared.

    • Robert Koslover

       My posts disappeared too…

    • Rudd-O

      It means ” fuck you, you cannot disagree with the poster”. Of course they won’t tell you the truth — the name of the game is never to tell the truth.

      • Guest

        Fundamental attribution error much?  It is probably a technical hiccup — viewing the page without JavaScript shows the comments.

      • Robert Wiblin

        Yeah it’s a technical glitch we are trying to fix.

      • Silas Barta

         I was kinda surprised at how there were comments “removed by a moderator”, which had replies still visible … and yet the replies were _not_ stuff like, “No, I believe that was *your* mother.”

  • Rudd-O

    Paternalism isn’t kind. It is violent. The base assumption in your post is that it is okay to use violence to impose an opinion on others. Not to make a moral afgument, but i will just mention by example that this assumption is the same assumption that rapists, murderers and fraudsters use when they decide to act in the aforementioned ways.

    If you are willing to call that “kind”, do so. Just make sure (to not be called inconsistent) to congratulate some rapists on their kindness of imposing unwanted children on today-women… they might have wanted to have children in five years, right?

    If your economics allows you to reach venal conclusions, then your economic calculation went wrong or was not economics in the first place — your equation missed an important factor like 2+(?) missed that which would produce four in straight up arithmetic. Here is the missing factor in your shyster economics: The question is not whether future Person X would have liked to be beaten up to get him to do Y — the question is why an “economist” learned why that is okay. The answer is probably in child abuse according to leading psychologists and psychiatrists.

    • Anonymous Shit

      Oh, come on. I’m probably gonna be feeding a troll, but since people have liked this, and I’m bored, I might as well.

      Most murders, rapes, and frauds are not made to impose an opinion on others, or even for the good of others. It’s done for personal gain. I don’t see how you can associate that with being paternal, unless you’re talking about mercy killings, which are not always obviously morally wrong, and don’t have as much of the negative connotation you try so hard to keep throughout your straw man. And in your second paragraph, you make come to crazy conclusions. You claim that, assuming violence is a justifiable means to an end, it is okay to rape women because they *might* want children in the future.

      Well, if you are willing to take really painful means to have a small chance of a slightly good ends, do so. Just make sure (to not be called inconsistent) to congratulate those who chop off their arms because they’re itching… because the ends don’t have to justify the means, right?

      Wow, this actually was fun to write. Hopefully your stupid comment will be removed, or at least downshifted, because it does not deserve to be at the top of the discussion. This was actually a good post, and your comment almost stopped me from reading the better discussion below.

  • Robert Wiblin

    Sorry about the disappearing comments everyone. Our tech guy is looking into how to restore them and prevent this happening again.

  • Sister Y

    It seems that this piece is arguing that paternalism is okay because even though it might appear to violate people’s rights in the present, the violation is for their own good in the long run.

    Isn’t that just…the definition of paternalism? Does any actual opponent of paternalism deny this?

  • kurt9

    they could justify all kinds of interventions that benefit someone’s
    future self: preventing suicide, reducing smoking, encouraging exercise,
    requiring people to save for emergencies and retirement, and so on.

    There is a legitimate argument for paternalism for this purpose. However, Paternalism has been used to assault and destroy one’s future self, such as bureaucratic or legal impediments to the development of effective anti-aging bio-medicine or cryo-preservation. This is never a legitimate use of paternalism.

  •  The comments’ qualities here have greater variance but about the same central tendency as on Less Wrong. It’s more interesting here: I’d rather read a few good comments and many terrible ones than all mediocre comments, as is the rule on Less Wrong.

  • It is in the interest of the North Korean government to have workers who can live a long life & work a long time for the state. But I want things other than just health.

    • dmytryl

      The very fact that you have to pick some worst government in the world (which is also pretty damn bad at just being a government) means you already lost.

      Honestly, you’re just a rich kid, born in well developed country that does so many things to ensure parents behave well and tries very hard to discourage access to particularly harmful addictive substances novel to the white people. You just take everything for granted, and you want to believe it is some genetic or racial awesomeness of yourself personally that put you on top of this pile of other people’s win. No it isn’t. You probably been dragged onto that pile of win against some ancestor’s wills. You are living in a shining example of how paternalism works – in so much as you keep someone from gaining too much power and using it as excuse.

    • dmytryl, it is a common rhetorical step to use extreme examples (like an economist’s simplifying assumption) to make a point obvious. My point is not original to me, I borrowed it from a generalization Bruce Bueno de Mesquita made about a number of governments.

      As a 21st century American, I am quite rich by historical standards. I don’t know where you’re getting all this stuff about race, my point about genetic conflict comes from Trivers and doesn’t even require the concept of a race. And judging by the behavior of other (even white!) people I know, society hasn’t done that good a job of discouraging access to addictive substances. I’d link to Robin’s post theorizing why parents don’t want their kids to use drugs and kids reject their paternalism, but too many comments are getting auto-moderated and I already included one link. I can’t see where I’m the beneficiary of the government overriding my parents.

      Peter D, there’s Type I error and Type II error when it comes to governments overriding parental authority. As I stated, there are evolutionary reasons for biological parents to share interests with their children and act on behalf of those interests, as well as SOME tendency for their interests to conflict. There is much less reason to expect such shared interests with the government.

    • dmytryl

      Well, there’s a zillion and one example of how people do not serve their own interests, let alone their children’s.

      The practice shows that e.g. putting child into a willing family as adopted child works quite well; better than sub-par biological parents.

      Why? Its not following genetic interests! Well, the human brain simply doesn’t follow genetic interests, it never did, it’s dramatically not how neural networks work. You posting here is example of this, me posting here is example of this, it’s ridiculous this point even needs to be made. If the genetic interests do not stop parents capable of raising a child from using condom, why on earth should they stop from killing a child or cutting child apart to sell for organs or the like? Well they do not, the culture does, the government does, etc.

      “As a 21st century American, I am quite rich by historical standards.”

      You are quite rich by 21th century standards, no need to go historical. You are living in a shining example of paternalism that, while not perfect, worked for you. It’s a bit like, you are growing up under insurance coverage and nothing happens to you and you go on how this insurance took advantage of you and there shouldn’t be insurance. People are just this way.

    • I’m not sure what literature you’re citing on the effects of transferring a child to an adopted family. Most twin-adoption studies find negligible “shared environment” impact, but it could be that traits they focus on (like personality, for Judith Harris) are less relevant. I do know that having an unrelated male (or even stepmother) in the home significantly increases the odds of injury/death, but those results don’t come from adoption studies (to quote this paper linked from Slate today, “Living in the same household with genetically unrelated adults is the single biggest risk factor for abuse, neglect and homicide of children”).

      I agree with Eliezer Yudkowsky that organisms are adaptation executors, not optimizers. This is true for both the parents and the children. The substantial overlap in their strategies leads to reduced conflict (although it still exists), and like Robin Hanson I prefer peace. I don’t believe in any objective version of “the good” (like forcing people to better serve their real genetic interests by having more offspring), I simply accept the existence of agents with diverse preferences which I use genetic interests as shorthand for, and like “dealism” as an approach for those agents (including myself) to pursue their goals without impeding the goals of others (though I recognize conflict is bound to exist).

      Continuing on with the theme of adaptation executions, condoms did not exist during the evolutionary adaptive period. Infanticide did, and sometimes made sense (Steve Pinker had a good article on early-stage infanticide which I recommend but can’t link for fear of tripping the filter). I actually favor the legalization of infanticide (to me it’s just a consistent stance on the abortion question) even though it doesn’t really serve the interest of the child (and the cuteness of babies may be an adaptation to prevent them from being killed by a mother who might have wanted to conserve her resources for another child). However, I’ve never heard of parents dismembering their infant to sell the organs and buy a car, perhaps infant organs aren’t suitable for what’s in demand. I have heard that the Chinese government harvests the organs of large numbers of prisoners sentenced to death, and even sends their families bills for expenses. You may say that’s just one government (of the most populous nation on earth, and one that has greatly increased in quality over the past few decades!), but the NYPD (the finest of America’s most populous city!) recently ran over Tamon Robinson, and then billed his mother for damages to their car. We have about 1% of the population incarcerated, and when the FBI found serious errors in some of its forensic analysis used to convict people (focusing chiefly on the work of one scientist), they didn’t inform the convicted. There is Dallas D.A Craig Watkins who has actually worked to free people convicted based on faulty evidence, but generally speaking the government is one of the last organizations I would defer to as more inclined to look after my own interests than myself.

      You seem to think I believe in free will. I do not. I don’t believe its accurate to model drug addiction as a disease which people are helpless to resist either, but just as something they find very satisfying. Most users, even of hard drugs, drift in and out of use rather than remaining trapped in it. The “Rat Park” experiment showed that even enforced prolonged use of opiates doesn’t trap rats in addiction once they have the option to drink drug-free water. Hawaii’s H.O.P.E program has had tremendous success in deterring even the most hard-core of meth users simply by credibly promising that they will spend one(!) night in jail if they fail a drug test, increasing the amount of jail time with repeated failures. Most of our war on drugs is not nearly as effective and chiefly serves to immiserate users & their community, while enriching the few suppliers violent enough to climb to the top.

      I don’t believe that insurance should not exist. I believe that much insurance as it exists now (such as when people are required to have health insurance which covers certain enumerated things, whether they want it or not) does not function as an economist would conceive the insurance function (ex ante benefiting both the customer & supplier). It is intended to redistribute from the healthy to the unhealthy, and a healthy person who would prefer to defer the purchase of insurance to a later date or to purchase a policy more narrowly tailored actually does understand their own interests.

      As for whether I have benefited from the government’s paternalism, you would have to know what decisions my parents or I would have made without it. But you don’t know. You simply assume the conclusion you are trying to prove. It is like saying that because I am doing alright and we have farm subsidies, farm subsidies must benefit me.

    • dmytryl

      With regards to adoptive parents vs
      biological parents, I know personally families with adoptive children
      who are doing massively better than they would of done in the original

      The government works by moving children out of the worst
      percentile of the families, into the families that pass some testing and which want to adopt. Even though one can make a point that the
      adoptive families on average are worse than non-adoptive families, they are better than huge fraction of non-adoptive families. (And of course the situation is dramatically different from having a stepfather).

      Now, you endorse “unrestricted freedom to harm their children”. That does not affect the regular family; it affects those where government currently intervenes.

      With regards to parents not selling their children for organs, well, that is incredibly risky thing to do right now, that the people with endorsement like yours are perhaps 2..3% of population.

      There is no way you are so ignorant as to not know what parents did to their children among the segment of population affected by your endorsement. You are simply what majority of population calls “evil”, that’s the issue right here. You better learn to pretend you aren’t, for your own sake.

      As for whether I have benefited from the government’s paternalism, you
      would have to know what decisions my parents or I would have made
      without it. But you don’t know. You simply assume the conclusion you are
      trying to prove.

      The important thing is that you know and I am talking to you. It is generally highly likely that someone’s current well being relied on goverment support or otherwise violated the principles of a libertarian poser.

    •   @TGGP My point is not original to me, I borrowed it from a generalization Bruce Bueno de Mesquita made about a number of governments.

      Mesquita’s arguments concerned why Stalinist governments are great at universal health care and universal literacy. The answer given is that for selfish reasons, they’re concerned with the quality of the labor force.But this constitutes are overlapping interest between these governments and the masses—one concerning some of the masses’ most vital interests  It is no less legitimate an overlapping interest to cite than is the reproductive interest of parent in child. That interest, too, is only partial: it leaves out many of the child’s real interests (that is, the child’s lifelong utility function, which differs from its own reproductive interest, hence even more from its parents’). The interest of “loving parents” in their children’s health, for example, seems sadly deficient. (Perhaps because you don’t need to live that long to reproduce?) What kind of loving parent is indifferent to the obesity of a growing fraction of kids?I think you reach libertarianism by embracing too extreme a form of genetic determinism, according to which the only interests you can rely on are reproductive interests. 

    • dmytryl, do you know of any studies on the effects of adoption/CPS compared to leaving children with birth parents? The adoption research I’m more familiar with investigates what happens if twins are raised apart or how similar unrelated kids reared together turn out. And as long as counties receive $4000 in federal grants for every foster child adoption, $8000 if the child is older than 9, I wouldn’t trust them to have the right incentives. That’s pretty blatantly the case with asset forfeiture, where police have specificially requested that families post bail money in cash (since most people don’t know that’s not legally required), and then (though the family documented that they had just withdrawn the cash from a bank) claimed that a sniffer-dog detected drugs and seized the money for the police department.

      Selling organs is risky because it’s illegal everywhere except Iran (because, as Al Roth can tell you, it violates the taboos of most people). But I have heard of a sizable number of cases where it has occurred, and when discussing the issue with others there was academic literature to discuss about organ sellers. I have not heard about a case of parents killing their child and selling its organs. “Shaken baby syndrome” also occurs often enough for there to be medical literature on whether the cases reveal mistreatment of the child, and there’s not even the incentive of a shiny car in that situation. Without the documented existence of such a phenomenon, I don’t think it serves you as a very good argument. As for whether there is 2 or 3% of the population, again I’d like to see some studies.

      If I found the concept of “evil” to be useful, I would deem evil the (extremely common) position that organ sales should be prohibited. And I’m completely aware that many would consider me evil for my own position on that. The irrational instincts inherited from the past are especially pernicious in “far mode”, where people don’t directly face the consequences of their mistaken ideas (as when you cast a vote affecting people you don’t know).

      If the important thing is that I know my own history & circumstances, what does it say that I don’t perceive myself as the beneficiary of paternalism? I’m also confused by your description of me as a “libertarian poser”. A poser is someone who pretends to be something, and I’ve been explicit on this blog and my own that I don’t claim to be a libertarian. I don’t believe in rights, and will endorse on rule-consequentialist grounds the use of coercion, including by the state, if it seems beneficial due to externalities. In the case of children I see that their biological relatives have the strongest genetic interests, while unrelated people have negligible interest and any disutility they get from hearing about what parents have done has the least-cost-avoidance strategy of ignoring it.

      srdiamond, yes parents’ interests only partially overlap with those of their children. That is Trivers’ theory of genetic conflict. Unrelated people have even less shared genetic interest (which is why people overwhelmingly flee from East to West Germany or North to South Korea, despite the education & healthcare). My understanding is that currently, being overweight predicts higher fertility (being slightly overweight is also predictive of being healthier, an artifact of our official definitions of appropriate BMI). There was also a study out recently indicating that castrated men live longer, and there has been ongoing research into life-extension gained from metabolic restriction (which significantly reduces fertility). It is not surprising that so many decline to be skinny eunuchs, and I wouldn’t bother with any argument that they have some “real” interest they are failing to follow. In my own life I do sometimes think that someone else has greater understanding about something that can benefit me, and I am apt to defer to their judgment. But I don’t generally view paternalists as sharing my interests or facing any negative consequences from being wrong, and insofar as I can evade them I will.

    • dmytryl


      A bit of the issue, in fairness, is that I don’t quite understand your position.

      Do you dispute that there exist pairs of family willing to adopt and dysfunctional family, such that forcibly moving child from the dysfunctional family to the family willing to adopt improves the child’s well being?

      In so much as any such pairings do exist, the government can improve the child’s well being by moving children away from biological parents to adoptive parents, within those pairs.

      The way genetic interests work, btw, is them make you take care of the children that you live with. Who are virtually always your children. We don’t really come with some genetic test, like, I dunno, biting the child and having the tongue perform DNA match analysis, anyway, and the fact that you ‘know’ the children are not yours is abstract knowledge of the kind to which we had no time to adapt. As a side effect, this allows to use parents to raise children of other people.

      WRT the organ donations, if it is legal to cut up your child for organs and sell them, well, if you look around at the worst of the worst, there are enough psychopaths who will grow their children to, say, age of 10, then cut them up for transplants. Easily several percent. Note that, even though psychopathy is inheritable, majority of the children will likely not be psychopaths themselves as in a family typically only one parent is a psychopath. How the hell is that possibly worse than the chinese approach where they do pick the involuntary donors among the criminals (whom they have a plenty)

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  • kdmar

    This actually assumes that the paternal agent actually knows what is best for the future you. For example, Communist dictators such as Stalin and Mao used this idea that the short term costs (i.e. seizing of property, killing of political dissidents) were worth it for the long term aim of creating a socialist utopia. The famous phrase used was “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The famous reply by George Orwell was of course “Where’s the omelet?” There of course was not omelet, which is why many of these regimes fell or loosed their control over the economy. Sometimes paternal agents don’t know what’s best for you now OR in the future.

  • Doctor_ostric

    quitting smoking and harming children are moral equivalents? This is just swill.

  • It’s possible that a paternalist thinks in “far mode”, while people think in “near mode” concerning themselves, but that doesn’t tell us much about who knows best, not even in the special case where all information is known by both parties, since the “mode of thinking” is just one of many possible factors affecting the outcome.

    For example, the individual has a strong self-interest, so they’re motivated to do what’s best for themselves. State paternalism, on the other hand, has to be instituted by politicians and administered through bureaucrats. Those politicians and bureaucrats are primarily motivated by their own self-interests. In real life, this frequently leads to decisions that are sub-optimal in relation to the stated goal and the available information. For example, when decisions are affected by campaign donations, by internal power struggles, or by the consequences the decision has for the politician/bureaucrat personally.
    Since an individual doesn’t have a conflict of interest with themselves, most of these problems don’t occur when the individual decides for themselves.

    I could give more examples, but the point is that we can’t draw any conclusions just because we found *one* factor that speaks in favour of paternalists knowing best. We need to get an overview of the most important factors for and against (and even then, we’re unlikely to reach any degree of certainty).

  • Guest

    “Protecting people from themselves” is not about protecting people. It’s about dominating people.

    Paternalists usually don’t pay the true costs of their paternalism, they force it onto others, while gaining social status for their alleged benevolence.

  • Paul Crowley

    Err, the whole point is that it does not require that. I think that plays a role in paternalism, but the whole point of this post is that even if both parties totally agree on all matters of fact, paternalism can make sense if I value future-you more than you do. 

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