Government Paternalism
Nanny State or Helpful Friend?
Julian Le Grand & Bill New


Should governments save people from themselves? Do governments have the right to influence citizens' behavior related to smoking tobacco, eating too much, not saving enough, drinking alcohol, or taking marijuana—or does this create a nanny state, leading to infantilization, demotivation, and breaches in individual autonomy? Looking at examples from both sides of the Atlantic and around the world, Government Paternalism examines the justifications for, and the prevalence of, government involvement and considers when intervention might or might not be acceptable. Building on developments in philosophy, behavioral economics, and psychology, Julian Le Grand and Bill New explore the roles, boundaries, and responsibilities of the government and its citizens.

Le Grand and New investigate specific policy areas, including smoking, saving for pensions, and assisted suicide. They discuss legal restrictions on risky behavior, taxation of harmful activities, and subsidies for beneficial activities. And they pay particular attention to "nudge" or libertarian paternalist proposals that try to change the context in which individuals make decisions so that they make the right ones. Le Grand and New argue that individuals often display "reasoning failure": an inability to achieve the ends that they set themselves. Such instances are ideal for paternalistic interventions—for though such interventions might impinge on autonomy, the impact can be outweighed by an improvement in well-being.

Government Paternalism rigorously considers whether the state should guide citizen decision making in positive ways and if so, how this should be achieved.

Julian Le Grand is the Richard Titmuss Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics. He has acted as a senior adviser to the UK Prime Minister, the European Commission, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization. His many books include Motivation, Agency, and Public Policy and The Economics of Social Problems. Le Grand was awarded a knighthood in 2015 for services to social science and public service. Bill New is an independent policy analyst, currently working in Italy. He has previously worked in the UK for the National Audit Office and the King's Fund.