The debate over state interference in personal liberties has been a reoccurring concern since the beginning of the first types of democracies. In John Stuart Mill’s, On Liberty, Mill addresses the need for little state intervention in order to respect personal liberty and autonomy. In his essay, Mill stresses the importance of the individual and the need for government not to restrain these liberties through paternalistic means. With his firm stance of his Harm Principle, devotion to utilitarianism, and analysis of liberties of thought and action, Mill confidently stresses that state paternalism is never justified.
In this paper, I will argue, through Mill’s Harm Principle that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” I will emphasize the idea that one is sovereign and the government need not interfere for “liberty consists in doing what one desires,” so long as it does not infringe on the liberties of others.
“Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Mill’s defense against paternalism lies primarily on the concept that individuals have a better idea of what is good for them than the government or any one else for that matter. While arguing his case, he ensures that these individuals involved are coherent, educated, and well-informed adults. Before further indulging into Mill’s argument against paternalism, one may wonder what exactly paternalism is. Webster’s Dictionary describes paternalism as “a policy or practice of treating or governing people in a fatherly manner, especially by providing for their needs without giving them rights or responsibilities.” To continue further, paternalism is the interference of a state or an individual against the will of another. This interference is justified by claiming what they did is to protect that person from harm.
For example, seat belt laws are a form of paternalism. As of May 1st, 2000 New Jersey statute declared that one must wear a seat belt, whereas if one is not wearing a seat belt they will be summoned. Former Governor Whitman signed the statute into effect based on statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The statistics showed that New Jersey could save forty-seven lives and have fifteen hundred fewer serious injuries a year. In this case, the government of New Jersey is telling the state that everyone must wear a seat belt. Yet, what about those who ride their vehicle into a body of water and cannot get their set belt off; they may end up drowning and death may arise.
In this case, the seat belt law is not helpful. Recently, research in Britain shows that British citizens wear seat belts not because they are told to, but because they fear the damage that may result from a car collision. So, is such a law necessary to tell people what to do? A line needs to be drawn with these sorts of regulations and interferences. People know what is morally wrong and right, and personal liberty decisions need to be left autonomous.
Mill, as an anti-paternalist argues interference is wrong. Mill indicates that “… liberty consists in doing what one desires, and he does not desire to fall into the river.” He refers to an incidence where an official sees a person about to cross a bridge which has been declared unsafe. Mill supposes that the official has no time to warn the person of the danger of crossing the bridge. At this point, the person is seized and no real infringements of liberty were asserted on the person. This is where Mill would draw the line of paternalism. In this case, it was necessary for the person to be stopped, if not, he may have been killed unwillfully.
So, where does Mill urge that interference is wrongful? Mill supposes that if one knows he is in danger, “he ought… to be only warned of the danger; not forcibly prevented from exposing himself to it.” Therefore, if someone knows the dangers of crossing the bridge, he should be left to make his own decision. I would compare this to the sale of tobacco. As a matter of fact, the danger of smoking is stamped across the side of the box. It states, “Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health.” Just as someone is left to make his own decision to cross the bridge, as is the decision left to the person to smoke tobacco or not. Yet, if the government were to prohibit tobacco sales, they would be parenting society. Mill urges this not to be done and the decision should be left to oneself.
Mill draws a different line of paternalism regarding alcohol in respect to drunkenness. He thinks that alcohol should not be prohibited, yet if someone is known for acting violent when drunk, he himself should be restricted. At this point, one is infringing another’s liberties and he should be stopped. For example, if a man is know to abuse his wife when drunk, then he should be punished and restricted. On the other hand, John Doe, who goes to the local bar once a week, should not be punished because of another man’s abusive tendencies when under the influence of alcohol.
Today, this can be compared to drinking and driving. If one is intoxicated while driving, and is in an accident, then he will be severely punished, whereas his license may be suspended and other charges may be pressed against him. Yet, if a sober person is in an accident, he would have minimum reparations to pay, usually an insurance deductible and nothing more. Here, the government is stating they will tolerate drinking, so long as there are no effects on anyone else. The government laid down the law on what is to be done if the privilege of drinking is taken advantage of. It is quite similar to the warning label on cigarettes. Both examples allow people to engage in certain activities, and warnings are given. Everything is left up to the person engaging in the activity. There is limited paternalism, and this is what Mill shows to be acceptable.
In On Liberty, Mill does a superb job in demonstrating what paternalism is, and he introduces a solution to the problem. In his bridge example, he lucidly states that there are clear-cut places where one can or cannot step in, especially when the liberties of others are at stake. In summation, if one knows of the consequences of his actions let him be without any interference. Yet, if one is ignorant to what may arise from a given situation one may interfere to protect that person from what he may not want to do. This is where the line should be drawn. Mill does conclude that any state interference would end up granting the state more power against the individual and limit the liberties of man.
So, should a paternalistic structure dictate what society can and cannot do? This reoccurring problem is solved in On Liberty, and Mill does suggest that man has the intellectual capability to make personal decisions that are in his own interest. Paternalistic interference is unnecessary. As Mill argued, “The worth of a State… is worth of the individuals composing it.” Moreover, there are no cases when it is acceptable to force an individual to do something for his own good. His principle will never allow for paternalism. Mill’s principle dictates the freedom to conduct oneself as he sees fit, so long as all others are left unharmed. As he indicated, which I stand firmly by with my argument, “liberty consists in doing what one desires, and [one] does not desire to fall into the river.”