Academic journal article Agenda: A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform

The Growth of Knowledge as Grounds against Paternalism

Academic journal article Agenda: A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform

The Growth of Knowledge as Grounds against Paternalism

Article excerpt

Introduction

Our regulatory system must protect public health, welfare and safety and our environment while promoting economic growth, innovation, competitiveness and job creation. It must be based on the best available science (Office of the Press Secretary 2011).

Paternalistic laws refer to those laws that interfere with or reduce the freedom of an individual for his or her own good; typically to 'protect or promote his health and safety, economic interest, or moral wellbeing' (Husak 2013: 40). They can help people avoid irreversible decisions that set off a cascade of problems later in life. These include growing debt, impulsive spending that doesn't improve welfare and the lack of saving.

Paternalism has been criticised for its association with coercion, removal of choice and the imposition of another party's values upon an individual, but recent research has strengthened the call for paternalist intervention. Studies in behavioural economics have revealed that consumers have cognitive limitations that limit their ability to maximise their own welfare. This has led to the rise of 'light paternalism', which argues that government intervention can compensate for these cognitive limitations and enhance welfare.

The new light paternalism has attracted new criticisms while some of the old ones remain. With this in mind, Sunstein (2011) stressed the need for empirically informed regulation. However, the introduction of a law, or any other intervention, is strongly influenced by the existing information and knowledge. It could be argued that any individual law reflects the state of knowledge that exists at the time of its introduction; however, knowledge continues to evolve long after laws have been enacted. This places an emphasis on the quality of information and measurement methodology that policy makers draw upon. It means that law and policy makers need to be fully aware of the information limitations.

This paper considers the significance of the growth of knowledge for the efficacy of paternalistic intervention. It argues that the limitations of knowledge include the nature of knowledge creation, presentation and the nature by which knowledge evolves. Our best attempts at knowledge are transient, yet it is on this basis that paternalist laws are enacted. This can reduce the logic of interventions that were introduced on the basis of the earlier knowledge. However, inertia, path dependency and expert bias can make it hard to repeal laws. These concerns apply to all regulation, but are of particular importance to paternalist laws in which the government assumes it knows what is best for the individual and can occur at a cost of individual agency. As a consequence, a society can be governed by laws that do not raise welfare. Policy makers need to recognise the nature of knowledge evolution and the limits of empirical research when making laws and policies. A number of implications are revealed for policy and law formation.

Paternalism defined

Gerald Dworkin defined paternalism as 'interference with a person's liberty of action justified by reasons referring exclusively to the welfare, good, happiness, interests or values of the person' (Dworkin 1972: 65). Its goal is typically to 'protect or promote his health and safety, economic interest, or moral wellbeing' (Husak 2013: 40).

Paternalistic policies have been criticised for a number of reasons. The assumption of superiority and the notion that the target is less capable can be considered an insult to the target (Coons and Weber 2013). As De Marneffe (2013: 72) notes, 'there is something disrespectful ... to coerce another adult on the assumption that he is mistaken about what's best for him'. Seen in this light, paternalistic laws do not respect the individual. Paternalistic laws also deny an individual's freedom and autonomy. In prohibiting or shaping an agent's decision making, it can be regarded as an affront to an agent's autonomy and freedom of choice (Muramatsu and Fonseca 2009). …

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