To what Extent Does Government Know What is Best for its Subjects?

Liberty and individuality are concepts that have grasped the passions of human societies for multiple millennia. Since the advent of organized politics, government has been society's self-imposing tool of regulations that curb the pernicious freedoms that may be destructive to society and its individuals. The concurrent veracity of both these statements creates a paradox that is one of political philosophy's most debated issues: at the expense of collective security, to what extent should individual liberty be tolerated? By implication, to what extent does government know what is best for its subjects?

These two questions are inextricably linked: when a government takes the onus of knowing what is best for its subjects, the value of individualism is depreciated, for it is suggested that government has the right to override individuality for the sake of greater good. In the play Antigone by Sophocles, Creon, king of Thebes, has issued a law that forbids the burial of the killed Theban traitor Polynices. Though it is alleged that this decree is resented amongst Thebans, Creon overrides public sentiment, believing his actions to be in the best interests of the security of the polis; that essentially, he knows what is best for Thebes.

A similar strand of philosophy exists in the Social Contract arguments of Thomas Hobbes: the relinquishment of liberty to authority is a natural element of organized society; that the toleration of liberty would lead to the diminishment of social order and security. To this perspective, John Stuart Mill ardently presents a different point of view in On Liberty. Mill argues that governments are often wrong in their assertions.

Furthermore, Mill criticizes control (both governmental and social) over individualism for he argues that they stunt the progression of human development, and in any case, may not be suitable for the minutiaes of different individuals. Mill's points seem profoundly correct; a bureaucracy can never truly know what is in the best interests of a subject for it neither knows the individual nor is the individual itself. Though paternalistic intentions may be genuine, the extension of governmental powers often creates restrictions to freedoms that are both fundamentally wrong and detrimental to the development of man as a dignified being.

Hobbes introduced the idea that in the absence of strict paternalism, human society would be reduced to a 'war of all against all. '1 Paternalism is understood to mean a governmental attitude that makes authoritarian decisions on behalf of a government's subjects. Hobbes presents unrestrained liberty as pernicious – something that elevates mutual harm between self-interested individuals. Thus Hobbes asserts that in any given society, government knows what is best for society's wellbeing; individuals should embrace government paternalism (which necessarily requires the diminishment of individual freedom) for societal safety.

Hobbes suggests that in their natural state, individuals would resolve to an anarchic war of survival and self-interest. As such, Hobbes argues for a near-boundless figure of authority to curb the dangers of liberty. It seems that Hobbes' philosophy is comparable to the limitless power of Sophocles' Creon, who crushes individual liberties such as the freedom to mourn for Polynices, in order to ensure the safety of the polis. To Creon, the survival of the polis overrides all other factors. Liberty is pernicious in the sense that it undermines the ultimate authority of government.

The freedom to speak against the Theban government, or even to actively defy Creon's laws (as Antigone does when she buries Polynices) would suggest that authority is arbitrary, for it would demonstrate that it can be justifiably defied. The consequences, as Creon declares, would be anarchy and the deterioration of society. Therefore, Creon, as leader of Thebes, takes it upon himself to curb freedoms in the name of security. Hobbes, like Creon, places much more importance on collective security than on individual liberty.

Both figures portray not only liberty as being fundamentally pernicious, but also government as knowing what is best for society. According to Hobbes and Creon, government is a paternalistic figure that makes decisions on behalf of its subjects for their own good. They assert that a government is wiser than its subjects – "is Thebes about to tell me how to rule? " Creon asks, baffled – and acts in the interest of security. Individual liberty is in direct contradiction to this security – it undermines the authority of the government and by implication, threatens collective safety.

In many ways, Hobbes' and Creon's approaches are utilitarian. They seem to acknowledge that security and liberty are in contradiction. To Hobbes, the 'greatest good' is achieved by undermining liberty and maximizing security (via the maximization of paternalistic control). Therefore, according to Hobbes, collective security should not be held at expense for liberty, for security is linked with the greatest happiness; government knows what is best for its subjects and therefore should be given maximum control of its subjects in the name of societal protection and greatest good.

The crux to Hobbes' argument is that individual liberty is inherently dangerous whilst, at the same time, the judgment of government is infallible in regards to bringing about security. Without these properties, there would be no justification for government to override freedom – how can one submit freedom to a government that does not, in fact, have absolute wisdom and would not work in the best interests of its subjects? Would it not be unjust if Creon's agenda were, in fact, contrary to Thebes' best interest?

Indeed, if this were the case, would not the actions of government be classed as oppression, not paternalism? It is precisely these questions that unravel Hobbes' argument. The line between paternalism and oppression is hazardously thin; by utilitarian standards, the former is justifiable but the latter is not. John Stuart Mill acknowledges the paternalistic strain in many governments – that many regard themselves to have a 'duty… to prohibit what they think is pernicious' [p. 25. Mill, J. 1859, On Liberty; subsequent citations refer to this text]; that power is 'given to men that they may use it.

However, Mill nevertheless underlines that no one is a vehicle of 'infallibility' [p. 24]. Governments are by human nature 'corrigible' [p. 27]. Contrary to Hobbes' conception of authority, government does not necessarily entail irrefutability and they do not necessarily bring about collective security. The implication for this is that perhaps it is a mistake to forsake liberty to authority, for governments themselves may be fallible; they may, in fact, not always know what is best for its subjects.