In a recent polemic in the Guardian Roy Hattersley attacks John Stuart Mill's idea from his On Liberty (1859) that in a civilized society adults should be free to make their own mistakes, and that this is better than having the State or anyone else coerce them 'for their own good' - provided, of course, that no one else is harmed (rather than merely offended) by their actions (Mill's so-called Harm Principle). Hattersley believes that Mill is
'comfortingly worthy but out of date'
Hattersley seems to sneer at Mill using the male pronoun in his writing to refer to men and women despite having written on women's rights (in his Subjection of Women); this is a bizarre and anachronistic criticism. I wonder if Hattersley knows of any writers in the nineteenth century who used ' he or she' instead of 'he'.
He quotes Mill's idea that
'all errors which (a man) is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.'
Then he dismisses this with a rhetorical 'Only cranks believe that now.' This is a blatant use of the devious technique known as 'poisoning the well'. That aside, his examples which are supposed to show that Mill was wrong are that if people generally believed in this principle we wouldn't prohibit recreational drugs and wouldn't have laws requiring travellers in the back seats of cars to wear seat belts.
Let's take these one at a time. It is not obvious that only cranks believe that recreational drugs should be legally available to adults (particularly to adults who are well-informed about the risks). Consistent application of Hattersley's line might demand that we ban all kinds of risky activities, such as playing rugby or rock-climbing. As a matter of fact Hattersley would probably be happy to go down this route - I remember interviewing him about boxing for an Open University television programme (course A103) when he took the paternalistic line and defended the idea of a ban on the sport.
Mill, in his discussion of drunkenness in the section 'Applications' (p.167 of the Penguin edition of On Liberty) makes the point that although someone should be free to get drunk as long as this doesn't harm anyone else, his principle would allow that once someone had been violent when under the influence of drink, then he should be placed under a special legal order that would punish him if he were found drunk again, and increase the punishment to which he would be liable if he committed any offence when in that state. This is a more subtle position on one recreational drug (alcohol) than Hattersley gives Mill credit for.
On the seat belt issue, it is not obvious that seat belt laws are straightforwardly paternalistic: it is not necessarily for the good of the adult backseat traveller that we have such laws. Surely the strong case is that in a world of very limited health resources those who take risks by not wearing safety belts put unnecessary burdens on the National Health service.