Popular Paternalism: Has a Pandemic turned people towards authoritarianism?


Sanchayan Banerjee,  PhD Candidate in Environmental Economics, LSE


An interesting aspect of the current pandemic is that authoritarian solutions, typified by complete lockdowns of citizens’ movementsseem increasingly popular. Even in England, where self-determination is given high importance and police powers are relatively limited, there seems strong support for “lockdown” policies. In unusual situations should governments put more effort into soliciting public opinion in their decisions, rather than relying upon attitudinal assumptions derived from more normal times.

What are the odds of a severe pandemic occurring in exactly a hundred years’ time? For the last four centuries there seems to have been a strange consistency: Starting with the Great Plague of Marseille in 1720, the Asian Cholera outbreak in 1820, the unrelenting Spanish flu in 1920 and now the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) in 2020. In the first quarter of 2020 COVID-19 has wrought havoc on global society. At the time of writing total deaths were approaching 15,000 and continuing to spread and increase. By mid-March it was clear that the UK was on a similar track to most other countries, with deaths rising rapidly.

Countries have deployed a range of national and local control measures for the COVID-19 pandemic. The aggressiveness of these measures has differed quite starkly; notably the United Kingdom, which adopted a phased plan of  Contain-Delay- Research – Mitigate’ in an attempt to ‘flatten the curve’ of cases; intended to minimise fatalities and protect its National Health Service from excess demand. The UK government has famously included behavioural experts in its scientific advisory work, and this has had a clear influence on tactics; for instance, the government has often urged residents to ‘delay’ the spread by making norms like handwashing and social distancing more salient through public campaigns. Although the United Kingdom has said that it does not rule out the use of more authoritarian measures; such measures are being deployed later in the disease trajectory than in many other countries. The government made clear that not only was it concerned that there were epidemiological risks from suppression measures made “too soon”, but also that it believed that UK culture warranted an approach that was distinctly liberal rather than authoritarian. On 18th March the UK Prime Minister said:

“We live in a land of liberty, it’s one of the great features of our lives that we don’t tend to impose those sorts of restrictions on people in this country, but I have to tell you we will rule nothing out”

Thus, while reached rapidly for paternalism, the United Kingdom has stuck with more liberal measures particularly appealing to individual responsibility. Its approach has drawn widespread criticism, from other countries and organisation, and manybehavioural scientists arguing that the government appeared to have given too much consideration to the unproven concept of “behavioural fatigue” from an extended period of lockdown, as suggested by government adviser David Halpern. But is the open society approach justifiable in the eyes of citizens?


Studies in the past have shown that citizens tend to prefer smallernudges with lower cognitive costs over bigger shoves or pusheswith greater impacts on individual freedom. While nudges are known to work better in the dark (Bovens, 2009), agents seem to approve of their application even when made aware of them (Loewenstein et al., 2015). Moreover, an agent’s preference for a nudge seems to crowd out a tax when given the option to choose between them in a policy bundle (Hagmann et al., 2019). Considering such compelling evidence of agents’ overarching support for liberty-preserving nudges, would it be incorrect to anticipate that the United Kingdom rightfully adopted the most appropriate approach within its national context or general resistance to state paternalism?

Public perception seems to differ from these commonly held notions in the exceptional circumstances of the Coronaviruspandemic. In a February 2020 survey of 1600 UK respondents almost 50 percent of the respondents endorsed bans on travel from affected countries, and 40 percent favoured cancellation of large events. In another survey conducted 19th March 2020 of almost 4000 respondents, 64 percent of the respondents supported placing London under a lockdown, in which people could only leave their home to go to work or get essential supplies.  This included 57% support amongst Londoners). Amongst those supporting a full lockdown, there appears to be very little heterogeneity: around 60 percent of respondents each in London, North/South England Wales and Scotland voted in favour of this. Furthermore, those favouring a lockdown also included a similar percentage of respondents by gender, age, political affiliations and social status.

In a similar vein, 67 percent of these respondents also judged the government’s call to shut down schools last Friday as the ‘right decision’. Nearly half of the respondents in a related March 16th survey felt the government’s advice on measures against Covid-19 has been unclear so far. However, more recently, the government is considering stronger even stronger measures to enforce travel restrictions as ‘selfish’ citizens fail to abide by its ‘social distancing’ persuasions. This comes at a time when tube drivers have expressed anger over the government’s inability to restrict commuters from availing underground services. Interestingly, not many days back, about half of the respondents in a March 17th survey had reported ‘going out as normal’ during the spread of Covid-19. However, considering the need of hour, as of Monday (23rd March), the UK government did introduce much stronger “lockdown” measures and police powers, to ensure that ‘selfish’ citizens follow the ‘social distancing’ guidance. These emergency measures included fines for violators and policy powers to break up any gatherings of more than two people.

It is, of course, possible that media and social media coverage is swaying preferences, and survey responses may not reflect a true shift in favour of authoritarian policies over libertarian approaches to the current crisis. It might be too early to present any meaningful empirical evidence to validate or disprove this hypothesis, but the preferences revealed in recent surveys do raise issues that warrant further research; for if public perceptions reverse when faced with a global crisis that overwhelms citizens’ individual actions, andpaternalistic measures are then deemed better over liberty-preserving interventions, then the adoption of non-regulatory policy measures may undermine the goal of saving lives and protecting the NHS if it is widely felt that the government is “not doing enough”. Concern to protect citizens’ autonomy may be misplaced.

Does this then warrant a more conscious consideration of the citizens’ role in public policy appraisals? Or, should the government simply ignore such temporal public musings to avoid being led into policy approaches that conflict with longstanding norms?  Hopefully, when all of this is done, a critical enquiry of the UK and other government responses in tackling Covid-19 will yield meaningful answers to these questions.


Bovens L. (2009) The Ethics of Nudge. In: Grüne-Yanoff T., Hansson S.O. (eds) Preference Change. Theory and Decision Library, vol 42. Springer, Dordrecht

Hagmann, D., Ho, E.H. & Loewenstein, G. Nudging out support for a carbon tax. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 484–489 (2019).

Loewenstein, G., Bryce, C., Hagmann, D., & Rajpal, S. (2015). Warning: You are about to be nudged. Behavioral Science & Policy, 1(1), pp. 35–42


I extend my gratitude to Dr. Manu Savani (Brunel University London) and Dr. Ganga Shreedhar (LSE) for our conversation on this topic which motivated me to write this opinion piece, and to Dr. Tony Hockley for his generous editorial inputs. All views expressed here are my own.