Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 February 2013
Visceral objections often exist to policies seen as “paternalistic.” Terms like “Big Brother” and the “nanny state” invoke the dire specter of government intrusion into individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Indeed, “paternalism” itself is often a term of opprobrium, used to disparage or reject policies without necessarily addressing their merits or demerits. Economists are traditionally hostile to paternalism; public policy-makers and legal academics tend to be as well. Even those recognizing the implications of social science research indicating that individuals tend to make non-optimal decisions and to be vulnerable to a host of cognitive and emotional biases, hesitate in acknowledging the paternalistic implications of their results. Public opinion, too, is seen to oppose paternalistic policies; citizens are presumed to object to any government infringement on their rights or autonomy. Opposition tends to focus on such autonomy objections – emphasizing a libertarian ideal that each person prefers, and should be free, to make his own decisions, even if those decisions result in negative outcomes for the individual. If they do, the argument runs, then they will learn from those mistakes. Taking such objections into account, some scholars, as something of a compromise, have developed alternatives to traditional paternalism – e.g., “light,” “libertarian,” or “asymmetric” paternalism – that they argue accrue benefits to non-optimal decision-makers but retain autonomy of choice as much as possible.