Glen Whitman at Cato just published a serious (and long) discussion of paternalism. His argument is that our society is moving from the question of whether we should be paternalistic, to how much. One example he uses is state-mandated savings plans. Here’s another:
Sound paranoid? Anti-smoking regulations followed a similar path. Once upon a time, banning smoking on airplanes seemed like the reasonable middle ground. Now that’s the (relatively) laissez-faire position, smoking bans in bars and restaurants are the middle, and full-blown smoking bans have come to pass in some cities.
This is what libertarians always seem to get wrong — it isn’t paternalism (or, at least, it isn’t the “bad” kind of paternalism) when the state is protecting me from direct harm caused by someone else’s actions. I can claim a direct harm from inhaling second-hand smoke: emphysema and lung cancer. I can’t make a similar claim about somebody else’s lack of a savings plan.
I’d expect better from a guy at Cato, because I’m counting on them to help get pot, gambling and prostitution legalized everywhere.