Whether the state is justified in reducing self-inflicted harm by limiting people's freedom is subject to sustained philosophical debate and disagreement among the public. On one side, proponents of paternalistic regulation emphasize its net benefits for social welfare. On the other, its critics denounce, as a matter of principle, the idea that the state could interfere in citizens’ personal choices:
Photo credit: @TheResident
My favorite depiction of this sentiment (a remnant of the soda ban controversy) is a Statue of Liberty-styled silhouette raising the allegorical soda cup, next to the motto “Don’t let bureaucrats tell you what size beverage to buy.”
What underlies the conviction that personal autonomy should be protected even at substantial costs to one's health? Perhaps, we reasoned, it is sustained in part by the assumption that, barring bureaucrats' overreach, we'd be choosing freely.
Indeed, data from 3184 US adults who took part in a survey by the Pew Research Center showed that an internal locus of control was linked to a libertarian view of government (“It’s not the government’s job to protect people from themselves”) while an external locus predicted endorsement of a paternalistic state (“Sometimes laws to protect people from themselves are necessary”), and this association was independent of political ideology.
The influence of a deterministic worldview
To hone in on the role of free will and determinism beliefs, we asked students to complete the FAD Plus Scale and rate a variety of proposed policies, ranging from strong paternalistic restrictions (e.g., banning cigarettes) to libertarian deregulation (e.g., eliminating public pension). The belief in scientific determinism was associated with a stronger preference for paternalistic legislation, particularly in the form of nudges and opt-out programs. (No relationship was found with the Free Will subscale, unexpectedly.)
In another study, participants were asked to imagine living in a hypothetical nation within either a deterministic or indeterministic world, and evaluated one of two sets of policy proposals, paternalistic or libertarian in kind. As shown below, paternalistic policies were rated more favorably in a deterministic universe, while libertarian policies revealed the opposite pattern:
Median and IQR of policy ratings.
In light of recent interest on behalf of government in nudging people toward better decisions, our study underscores the value of philosophical reflection on behavioral science. Adopting a deterministic worldview renders paternalistic regulation more agreeable, perhaps by challenging the folk notion of personal autonomy.
We look forward to your comments and reactions. The article is available online at the link below:
Hannikainen, I., Cabral, G., Machery, E., & Struchiner, N. A deterministic worldview promotes approval of state paternalism, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, in press. [preprint]