How Paternalism Begets Paternalism

[Julian Sanchez]

I'm surprised and pleased to discover that Sarah Palin is willing to publicly declare recreational marijuana use a "minimal problem" that ought to be low on police priority lists. But her rationale for opposing formal legalization unintentionally reveals one of the more pernicious effects of laws that seek to "protect" citizens from the effects of their own choices:

 

"If we're talking about pot, I'm not for the legalization of pot," Palin said. "I think that would just encourage our young people to think that it was OK to go ahead and use it."

This is, in one sense, a pretty strange notion: There are all sorts of things that are legal for adults but not children, and it seems perverse to suggest that the failure to universally prohibit something counts as any kind of endorsement. But that's how the snowballing logic of paternalism works: The more we take it as given that the government will endeavor to prohibit harmful substances or behaviors, the more a failure to prohibit will come to be seen as a tacit certification of relative safety. To legalize what had previously been banned, then, may indeed seem like an affirmative endorsement. As people start outsourcing their safety assessments to the law, a vicious cycle kicks in: The more we prohibit, the more it seems we must prohibit. Maybe the better message to send "our young people" would be that many things they'll be legally able to do when they reach adulthood aren't necessarily wise or safe--and that they'll have to take responsibility for determining which are which.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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