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  arrow pointing to the right   Home arrow My Thoughts arrow Politics arrow Politics arrow Punitive vs. Supportive Government

Punitive vs. Supportive Government PDF Print E-mail

Punitive government vs supportive government

We know from decades of behavioral research that punishment doesn’t work. So why do we still use it as an approach to government?

We need to motivate ourselves to work past our current problems

The purpose of the United States government, according to our Constitution, is to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

A lot of this has to do with controlling behavior, which is odd for a government whose main purpose is to secure the blessings of liberty.  For instance, to secure justice, we sometimes have to secure and limit the freedom of people. The same goes for insuring domestic tranquility and providing for the common defense.

The question we have to ask ourselves is how best to do all this, ideally in a way that maximizes the blessings of individual liberty?

We seem to have at least 3 major approaches to the problem.  The 1st is punitive, where we punish those who infringe on the liberty of others. The 2nd is the libertarian approach – which maximizes individual liberty to the point of non-interference, even when someone behaves badly. And the 3rd is the supportive approach which promotes good behavior as a way to ensure liberty while securing justice etc.

These approaches are analogous to common parenting styles – authoritarian (punitive), permissive/uninvolved (libertarian) and authoritative (supportive). See

The authoritative style of parenting (supportive) is generally considered to create the best outcomes in terms of self-sufficient, well behaved and adjusted, happy successful people. This is because it provides structures and boundaries, but isn’t based on fear and punishment like the authoritarian/punitive approach is.  (see: Please note that the permissive/uninvolved/libertarian approach to parenting yields particularly bad outcomes and is discouraged for that reason.

Why, when talking about governing philosophies would I digress into a discussion of parenting styles? Because decade of behavioral research have shown us that punishment doesn’t work. If you want to stop people doing something, you need to support them so that they can. 

Now, just as we have parents who still resort to the authoritarian/punitive style of parenting despite ample evidence that it doesn’t work all that well, we have people who prefer an authoritarian or punitive approach to governance despite the fact that it doesn’t work all that well.  Seriously, if it doesn’t work for kids, it doesn’t work for adult humans either.

While very few parents use a permissive/unresponsive/libertarian approach to parenting because the outcomes are so bad, we do have a sizable number of people who promote this approach to government, despite the fact that again, it doesn’t seem to work.

This debate between punitive/authoritarian vs. permissive/unresponsive/libertarian vs. supportive/authoritative approaches can be seen in ALL of our public policy debates.

Food stamps?

  • Punitive approach - Feeding poor people makes them lazy. If we want them to not be lazy we need to punish them for being lazy to help them learn how to not be lazy.
  • Permissive/unresponsive/libertarian approach – People will never learn how to get food for themselves if we give them food.  
  • Supportive approach – people need help, so let’s get it to them so they can get back on their feet and become self-sufficient.

Criminal Justice?

  • Punitive – people did something wrong, so we need to punish them
  • Permissive/unresponsive – individuals can sort out their own conflicts without the rest of us interfering.
  • Supportive – how might we help this person learn how to behave better while simultaneously preventing them from doing any more harm?


  • Punitive – Pro-military action: Iran has sponsored terrorism. They need to be punished – forever.
  • Permissive/unresponsive – no military action, no diplomacy.  
  • Supportive – Pro-Diplomacy - yes, Iran has a history of behaving badly, but let’s engage with them anyway and see if we can figure out a way to help them behave better.

Those who prefer punitive/authoritarian solutions think that the supportive solution is unrealistic and naive. They are wrong, and we have decades of research to back this up. The authoritative/supportive approach yields the best outcomes.

The problem has always been that people who prefer punitive/authoritarian approaches may not have ever experienced a supportive approach and have no idea how it works. The often see the supportive part of the authoritative style and assume it’s a permissive style or approach. What they fail to understand is that it’s actually part of an authoritative framework. The bad behavior isn’t allowed to continue, but we help the child learn how to make better choices for the future.

And just as in parenting, where the authoritative approach is linked to good outcomes, in politics, the authoritative/supportive approach is also linked to good outcomes.  The question is, how can we help those who prefer the punitive approach to learn that punishment doesn’t work in politics or with kids?

It’s time we take a more authoritative approach to the problem of government and stop allowing the authoritarians to bully us into adopting punitive policies that will just make things worse.

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