Drugs and anti-paternalism

On Saturday I had an article in the Dom ranting about how harm minimisation was a dumb goal – as there are benefits from the consumption of drugs.  This argument has been on the internet a million times (see these two searches for example), so there is no need to rehash it here.

Originally, the article was a little different.  It was a direct attack on the paternalism implicit in the policy making associated with the anti-drug crusade and the policy target of minimising harm.  Fundamentally, this is a critique of what the Law Commission has done – they are an independent body that should critique how the law differs from the target of policy (which they do well IMO) AND critique where policy differs from its practical aim (something they haven’t done).  Often the implementation of laws differs from policy because the policy is bad!

The last three paragraphs from this far more libertarian style article were:

However, why as a society are we determined to stop people hurting themselves?  Part of life is learning to take responsibility when your own choices and actions hurt you – having a government act in a paternalistic way to stop this, and make it harder for people to learn about individual responsibility, seems dangerous to me.

Even if we do have sufficiently little faith in our fellow man, and believe that the government should act like our parents, is this type of policy intervention equivalent to good parenting?  A good parent will set some boundaries, but also give a child the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, and will be there to help if things go wrong – only a bad parent would focus only on potential harm and ignore any benefit to the child when setting boundaries.  In this sense, even the most paternalistic people must agree that solely focusing on harms from any action is a poor way to ensure that we have the happiest society possible.

Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that a truly civilised society must be based on compassion, not control – it should be based on people’s happiness and freedom, not the desire of some policy wonks to create their ideal world.

Comments and criticism of this view welcome.

Update: Relevant points from Eric Crampton (Uni of Canterbury/Offsetting Behaviour) and Luke Malpass (Centre for Independent Studies).

20 replies
  1. Eric Crampton
    Eric Crampton says:

    The three paragraphs quoted aren’t in the Dom piece from Saturday though, no? The piece I’m seeing is the same that Goonix links.

  2. goonix
    goonix says:

    @Eric Crampton
    Yeah the three paragraphs posted by Matt on TVHE were in his initial draft for the DomPost (and Infometrics) articles, although never made the cut. He was too scared of sounding libertarian, or something like that. 😛

  3. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @Eric Crampton


    Yar, I am discussing my initial draft which was just anti-paternalism. I switched to writing an article on benefits instead – as I wanted to include less implicit value judgments.

    Also I thought calling paternalists bad parents might be a little too inflammatory – although in essence I do stick by that statement.

  4. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    I do want to get flamed – but I know paternalists are only being so protective because they care, not because they are stupid or evil. And so I don’t see the point of being a bully, the goal should instead be to make them think about what they are saying and what is really best for everyone out there.

    As I’ve said before (http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.com/2010/05/gilbert-and-sullivan-on-politics-of.html#comments ) – its like the song father and son. Paternalists see it as saying that the issue is with the old guy not getting his message through, more liberal (UK sense) people see the problem as the old guy not giving the young guy an opportunity to experience and learn and live.

  5. EbolaCola
    EbolaCola says:

    i am a paternalist but my fellow paternalists are stupid and evil, the inconsistent treatment of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs does not minimize harm by anyone’s definition. No teenage cannabis users are dying in their sleep…

  6. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    Glad to see you agree 🙂

    I agree that the facts make it seem that way. But I think many of these people don’t see the facts, they have some prior belief where people taking a drug are turning around raping and murdering everyone (such as the description given by the anti-drug people in Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas).

    In essence, it is because attitudes and popular information drive that – I believe it is Will Wilkinson saying that we should all come out and try to normalise drugs, as a way to get them treated right.

    However, the sheer focus on harm minimisation implies that even normalisation won’t be enough. Harm minimisation as a policy really implies that no-one should do anything – so if you apply it to any single product you are going to recommend excessive controls. *Sigh*

  7. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    Adolf got flamed because someone doesn’t understand probabilities and wanted to blame him and the ACT party.

    We are supposed to attempt to get flamed, which is why I’m disappointed with the lack of anger from my article. Hell, even my mum agreed with it 😛

  8. Eric Crampton
    Eric Crampton says:

    @Matt: I could find some reason to call you a commie for your piece, if you’d really like. I’d start by saying that your last three paragraphs aren’t all THAT far from what Doug Sellman wrote a while back:

    Which state – “ninny” or “nanny” – is likely to encourage individual responsibility? The answer is neither. Highly restrictive “nanny state” families are prone to producing emotionally stunted children with no initiative, but laissez-fair “ninny state” families with no clear rules or regulations often produce out-of-control children. The answer, of course, lies in the middle ground.

    There. You’ve been flamed.

    And I do love the Raoul Duke at the Police Convention scene….

  9. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @Eric Crampton

    Excellent, thanks 🙂

    “Highly restrictive “nanny state” families are prone to producing emotionally stunted children with no initiative, but laissez-fair “ninny state” families with no clear rules or regulations often produce out-of-control children. The answer, of course, lies in the middle ground”

    What I love about that is the fact that it seems to imply that the state is the primary determinant of our personalities – I like to think a bit more of my personality was inherent tbh.

    “And I do love the Raoul Duke at the Police Convention scene”

    It is f’ing brilliant 😀

  10. Eric Crampton
    Eric Crampton says:

    What I love is that he refutes paternalism examples with an example using state as parent.

    Guy’s got a good press agent though – he can barely break wind without it being on the National Radio hourly news update.

  11. Laptop Carrying Cases
    Laptop Carrying Cases says:

    Interesting post & comments. I don’t think governments are too worried about paternalism when they do things like enforce prohibition. Usually they have an ignorant point of view about drugs that is not really based on facts and research. Some of the previous drug smearing campaigns have been so effective that most people don’t truly know how bad any drugs really are. It is assumed that since it is illegal it must be some evil thing.

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