During your youth, you might have been subject to the "rules of the house" imposed by your parents. These rules might have included a curfew, the amount of time you could spend on the internet, where you could go, with whom and a set time you must be home. While these might have been frustrating to you, at the end of the day, your parents were only doing what they believed was best for you.

Paternalism Paternalism

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    Did you know that the government indirectly tells us the same things through the laws it enacts? It's called paternalism and whilst you might have outgrown your parents' paternalistic guardrails, you are still subject to other restrictions that impede your individual liberties. Let's learn more about it.

    Paternalism meaning

    Leadership styles among Western democracies and politics vary and can be classified in several ways. Two of the most common are the conservative and liberal leadership styles. Liberal leadership is characterised by individualism, placing an emphasis on a person's right to make decisions independently. Conservative-style leadership follows a more traditional approach in which government officials make decisions from the vantage point that they know what's best for everyone. This is known as paternalism.

    Paternalism is a type of leadership in which an authority makes decisions that might breach the autonomy of those who the decision directly affects. These decisions are made based on the authority's belief that they know what's best for society and that their decisions will both benefit and protect society from harm.

    “[Paternalism is] the interference with a person’s liberty of action justified by reasons referring exclusively to the welfare, good, happiness, needs, interests or values of the person being coerced.” - philosopher Gerald Dworkin, 1973

    The response of government leaders to the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g. their decision to impose curfews, restrict movement, limit social gatherings etc., to help reduce the spread of the virus), is an example of paternalism. These paternalistic decisions were made based on the belief that the restrictive measures would help protect society from contracting the virus, spreading the virus to others, and keeping people from getting sick.

    The word paternalism comes from the Latin word for father -- pater.

    Types of Paternalism

    Paternalism is often criticised for interfering with individual freedoms. Knowing the different types of paternalism allows us to better understand how paternalistic decisions impact these freedoms. Gerald Dworkin characterised the various forms of paternalism by defining them in terms of hard or soft, broad or narrow, weak or strong, pure or impure and moral or welfare.

    Paternalism Type Example


    Restricting one's liberty only to confirm that the individual is fully cognizant that their behaviour will cause them harm.


    Restricting one's liberty to prevent them from harm, (e.g. committing suicide), even if the act of self-harm is of their own volition.


    Tools to enforce paternalism, such as institutions or laws.


    Any paternalistic action by the state or institution.


    Mandating the tools of protection to someone who wants them.


    Restricting liberties to prevent an individual from achieving their ends, especially when their ends result in harm.


    Preventing both the means and the ends to harm, (e.g. the legal prohibition of the consumption of drugs and narcotics).


    Preventing the means to harm, (e.g. making it illegal for doctors to prescribe certain drugs or narcotics to protect society).


    Imposing restrictions on individual liberties to improve someone's moral character.


    Programs and laws to improve societal welfare (e.g. imposing speed limits, making childhood vaccines mandatory, implementing construction zoning laws in cities and communities.

    Table 1 – Types of Paternalism.

    Paternalism in Government

    One of the historic approaches to paternalism in government comes from the monarchy. In the past, kings proclaimed themselves as the fathers of the kingdom and their subjects as their loyal sons. This concept comes from their divine right to rule in all the kingdoms, and in medieval times, they held supreme authority in most decisions.

    The Catholic Kings (King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile) were recognised as the Father and Mother of the nation of Spain and the New World.

    Usually, dictators and authoritarian figures use a cult of personality to portray themselves as the father of the nation viewing themselves as 'all-knowing' in taking decisions for their country.

    More recently, Joseph Stalin was recognised as the "Father of Nations" in all of the nations that encompassed the Soviet Union.

    Paternalism Photograph of Joseph Stalin StudySmarterFig. 1 – Photo of Joseph Stalin.

    One-nation conservatism

    One-nation conservatism is a type of British conservative ideology that has paternalistic characteristics. Like traditional conservatism, it advocates for the preservation of traditional practices and institutions, but it also underscores the importance of social and economic welfare programmes that aid those less fortunate. Proponents of one-nation conservatism political philosophy encourage society to work together, calling on the wealthy to align their interests with all classes within society.

    Paternalism Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli StudySmarterFig. 2 – Benjamin Disraeli.

    One-Nation Conservatism was established by Benjamin Disraeli, a former Primer Minister that worked to develop a more paternalistic society and parliament during his tenure. Since then, several leaders in the United Kingdom have shared one-nation conservatism beliefs, such as Boris Johnson, another prime minister. And more recently, the parliament created a One-Nation Conservative caucus in 2021.1

    List of Paternalistic Laws in the U.K.

    The United Kingdom has implemented several paternalistic laws and programmes under One-Nation Conservatism. The following sections highlight some of the most important ones.

    Employers and Workmen Act of 1875

    This Act was proclaimed during Disraeli's administration to give equal importance and protection to employers and employees. Before this Act, any breach of contract from the employees was subject to criminal law, with the possibility of imprisonment. Any violation of contract from the employers made them to civil law, resulting in just a fine.

    Conspiracy and Protection of Property of 1875

    Another Act proclaimed during Disraeli's administration, fully legalised trade unions subject to criminal law for actions that would be legal if done by an individual. This protects workers from protesting for their rights and levelling the playing field against employees.

    Paternalism in U.S. politics

    Throughout U.S. history, there have been many examples of political paternalism -- on behalf of the government and the people. Specifically, there are three critical events that were justified by paternalism: The occupation of the West, slavery, and women's suffrage.

    Manifest destiny is the idea that God destined the U.S. to expand and spread democracy to all of North America. After the Louisiana Purchase, U.S. citizens believed that meant occupying the western part of North America. Millions moved west and established countless towns along the way. In the process, they expelled Native Americans from their homes, believing American land would only prosper under their care. They even convinced the natives to fall under their supervision, as they would grow by adhering to the ways of the Union.

    The Louisiana Purchase

    A deal that was struck between Napoleonic France and the U.S. in 18032. It gave the U.S. imperial rights to the western Mississippi River. The territory consists of what today comprises 15 states.

    Paternalism and Slavery

    Paternalism also justified the practices that kept slavery alive. Enslavers argued that the African slaves came from extreme poverty. The premise was that by working under them, they would thrive through work, as they remained fed, bathed, and with a roof over their heads in exchange for living at the mercy of their masters.

    Paternalism and women's suffrage

    Opponents of women's suffrage justified denying women the right to vote based on the premise that voting required education and education required women to be away from their families. This, they argued, would make their lives significantly harder. Therefore, giving women the right to vote would mean making their lives harder.

    List of Paternalistic Laws in the US

    This section will highlight two paternalistic laws in the US of major importance.


    Prohibition was a constitutional ban enacted from 1920 to 1930 in the United States. Also referred to as the Volstead Act, it prohibited the production, sale, consumption, and transportation of alcoholic beverages.

    The Act was supported by the Temperance Movement, which sought to eliminate alcohol consumption based on moral grounds, as they thought alcohol led to corruption, violence, and alcoholism. However, the Act was unsuccessful, as it led to organised crime and the black market sale of alcohol.

    The Patriot Act

    The Act was enabled by Congress under George W. Bush in 2001 after the 9/11 terror attacks. The controversial Act allows for increased surveillance of US citizens in the name of national security (e.g., making it legal to detain individuals suspected of terrorism or terrorist plots indefinitely without trial.

    Paternalism Examples

    Paternalism can be seen everywhere in your daily life: rules in the workplace, film ratings, and geo-restrictions, among others. You could argue that any limitation made on behalf of your well-being could be considered paternalism if it is decided by only one party. History quickly reminds us that these policies are older than the term.

    Back in the early 20th century3, the Ford Motor Company used to require access to their employees’ bank accounts, church attendance, and family life to promote clean and sober lifestyles.

    The Ford Motor Company imposed these intrusive measures to support the Prohibition movement, as Henry Ford believed that alcohol reduced the efficiency of his workers. By promoting these rules and establishing wages and specific work hours, he thought he was doing the best for his workers.

    The COVID-19 pandemic provided another clear example of paternalism.

    After approving vaccines for COVID-19, several companies and governments made vaccines mandatory as they believed the vaccines would offer a permanent solution for society. Therefore, the paternalistic pattern continues, as many who opposed vaccination or were reluctant were forced to vaccinate to keep their jobs.

    Another modern example of paternalism can be seen in a recent landmark Supreme Court decision in the United States.

    Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the right to access abortion, was overturned by the US Supreme Court, going against decades of precedent and undoing years of work on reproductive rights. This outcome is considered paternalistic, as the government is interfering with women's reproductive rights and their right to make decisions about their bodies.

    Paternalism - Key takeaways

    • Paternalism is the practice where an authority makes decisions that might breach the autonomy of those who the decision directly affects to benefit them from harm.
    • Historically, approaches to paternalism in government are rooted in the monarchy. Many kings proclaimed themselves as the fathers of the kingdom and their subjects as their loyal sons.
    • One-Nation conservatism embraces traditional conservative values but encourages a society that works together, as one nation, for the benefit of all.
    • Examples of paternalistic laws are the Employers and Workmen Act of 1875, Conspiracy and Protection of Property of 1875, the Prohibition in the United States and the Patriot Act.
    • Paternalism also exists in the United States, with the occupation of the West, slavery, and women’s suffrage.
    • Paternalism can be seen everywhere in your daily life: Rules from work, film ratings, and geo-restrictions, among others. You could argue that any limitation made for your well-being could be considered paternalism if it is decided by only one party.


    1. "Tory MPs launch rival campaign groups". BBC News.
    2. The History Editors. The Louisiana Purchase. 2009.
    3. H. Ford, My Views on Liquor and the Law. 1932
    4. Table 1 – Types of Paternalism.
    5. Fig. 1 – CroppedStalin1943 ( by U.S. Signal Corps photo ( licensed by PD-USArmy (
    6. Fig. 2 – Benjamin Disraeli by H Lenthall (cropped) ( by National Portrait Gallery ( licensed by CC-PD-Mark (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Paternalism

    What does paternalistic leadership mean?

    When an authority makes decisions that might breach the autonomy of those who the decision directly affects, to benefit them from harm.

    What are the types of paternalism?

    Soft, hard, narrow, broad, weak, strong, pure, impure, moral and welfare.

    Why is paternalism bad?

    Some criticise paternalism because it limits the autonomy of individuals and society itself.

    What is an example of paternalism?

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, many leaders made decisions like imposing curfews, limiting social gatherings, and the time we could be out in the street to avoid spreading the disease.

    What was the ideology of paternalism?

    Conservatism, more specifically, One-Nation Conservatism.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is strong paternalism?

    What’s a recent example of paternalism?

    How does paternalism affect women?


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