The nanny state is in the news. A lot of people have been outraged by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to restrict soda sizes, recently overturned by a state court, and some people do not much like his proposal to ban cigarette displays in New York stores. If you share the outrage, you should recognize that various forms of paternalism are all around you, and at least some of them aren’t so bad.
Last year, new government regulations required automobile companies to increase the fuel economy of their cars, to a point where the fleet-wide average must exceed 50 miles per gallon by 2025. True, those regulations will reduce air pollution and promote energy independence, but the majority of the benefits come in the form of gas savings for consumers. For those who abhor paternalism, here’s the problem: Consumers can already buy high MPG cars, and many of them just aren’t doing so, even though they might well save money over the life of the vehicle. If the government is making the fleet a lot more fuel-efficient than consumers demand, is it operating as the national nanny, or the Gasoline Police? Should people be outraged about that?
Paternalism comes in a lot of shapes and sizes, and to come to terms with it, we need to offer a working definition. What seems to unify paternalistic approaches, however diverse, is that government does not believe that people’s choices will promote their welfare, and it is taking steps to influence or alter people’s choices for their own good.