In recent decades, some of the most important research in social science, coming from psychologists and behavioral economists, has been trying to answer it. That research is having a significant influence on public officials throughout the world. Many believe that behavioral findings are cutting away at some of the foundations of Mill’s harm principle, because they show that people make a lot of mistakes, and that those mistakes can prove extremely damaging.
Pointer from Mark Thoma.
Sunstein later writes,
Until now, we have lacked a serious philosophical discussion of whether and how recent behavioral findings undermine Mill’s harm principle and thus open the way toward paternalism. Sarah Conly’s illuminating book Against Autonomy provides such a discussion. Her starting point is that in light of the recent findings, we should be able to agree that Mill was quite wrong about the competence of human beings as choosers. “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.”
Then there is this:
Because hers is a paternalism of means rather than ends, she would not authorize government to stamp out sin (as, for example, by forbidding certain forms of sexual behavior) or otherwise direct people to follow official views about what a good life entails. She wants government to act to overcome cognitive errors while respecting people’s judgments about their own needs, goals, and values.
Try to imagine a dialog between Conly and Michael Huemer (or another libertarian).
Libertarian: if a random stranger came to you and forcibly stopped you from drinking a large soda “for your own good,” would you find that acceptable? I would accept advice from a stranger. I might accept forcible restraint from a friend or someone to whom I had given permission to restrain my impulses (like Odysseus with the Sirens). However, why should I want government officials to interfere with my decisions because of my supposed incompetence?
Conly: Government officials are not random strangers. They are experts. That is why the should be allowed to interfere with your decision.
Libertarian: I listen to experts all the time. But what makes government officials so wonderfully expert that I should be forced to listen to them? When it comes to “staying out of debt” and “saving for the future,” are government officials the experts to whom you would have me defer? Seriously?
Maybe someone can help me be more charitable here.