In his compelling article, Cass Sunstein explores the validity of Mill’s ideas on government and the individual. Here is a sample:
In his great essay, Mill insisted that as a general rule, government cannot legitimately coerce people if its only goal is to protect people from themselves. Mill contended 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. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.
A lot of Americans agree. In recent decades, intense controversies have erupted over apparently sensible (and lifesaving) laws requiring people to buckle their seatbelts. When states require motorcyclists to wear helmets, numerous people object. The United States is facing a series of serious disputes about the boundaries of paternalism. The most obvious example is the “individual mandate” in the Affordable Care Act, upheld by the Supreme Court by a 5–4 vote, but still opposed by many critics, who seek to portray it as a form of unacceptable paternalism.2 There are related controversies over anti-smoking initiatives and the “food police,” allegedly responsible for recent efforts to reduce the risks associated with obesity and unhealthy eating, including nutrition guidelines for school lunches.
Mill’s claim has a great deal of intuitive appeal. But is it right?
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