12.1 Libertarians and paternalists

Libertarianism is the view that claims that we have no right to prevent someone else from engaging in risky, dangerous or disgusting behavior as long as it is clear that no one else will be hurt by that behavior besides the person engaging in it. In other words, libertarians argue that the state has no right to prevent me from riding a motorcycle without a helmet, watching pornographic videos in the privacy of my own home, injecting myself with whatever substances I feel like, as long as no one else is hurt by what I do. Even if I do things that are patently stupid, and clearly go against my own best long term interests, it is up to me whether or not I do them.

The bottom line for libertarians is liberty. In their view liberty is what makes human life worth living, and it needs to be protected from arbitrary limitation. In the view of libertarians, unless it is clear that what I am doing infringes on your liberty or harms or sets back your interests, it should be up to me to decide what to do with my life. Libertarians defend this view by appeal to the benefits, both individual and social, of allowing as much liberty as possible. A society that allows as much liberty as possible may at times seem chaotic, but it is also a society in which individuals can find personal satisfaction in whatever way they see fit and in which society as a whole benefits from the innovations and new ideas that only free individuals can create.

Paternalism, in contrast, is the view that it is acceptable to restrict others behavior even when what they are doing hurts only themselves. Paternalists believe that even mature adults need protection against our own impulses at times.

Paternalists thus make the assumption that we are not always competent judges of our own interests. Left to our own devices we would degrade ourselves with drugs just for the sake of the cheap thrills they bring, we would gamble away our life savings in pursuit of the easy money of winning the jackpot, we would endanger our lives by taking stupid risks for the sake of the fleeting pleasure of riding a motorcycle with the wind in our hair. That is, paternalists are not confident that the average adult can in fact make rational, adult-like decisions about his or her own life. Thus, they believe that strong social sanctions, like laws regulating intoxicating substances, gambling, prostitution, etc. can be good things. Even though such laws limit our liberty, without them both individuals and society as a whole would needlessly suffer from self-abuse and degradation.