Posts Tagged ‘paternalism’

On Sarah Conly’s book, Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism (must quote the whole thing):

Human beings are irrational. As Sarah Conly writes, “The truth is that we don’t reason very well, and in many cases there is no justification for leaving us to struggle with our own inabilities and to suffer the consequences” (pg. 1).

Fortunately, however, while human beings don’t reason well, government officials do. This is because they are able to be more objective than we are. Again, Conly explains this very well: “Since we do better at estimating efficacy when we are in a relatively objective position, government, insofar as those in it are not the ones who are at present tempted by the rewards of the poor decision, can help us do better to reach our own, individual goals better than we would do if left to our own devices” (pg. 10).

And indeed, our history proves Conly’s claim, as objective government officials have acted with the reason and balance of experts who are not tempted by direct involvement in the questions being decided: the Sedition Act of 1798, which led to the imprisonment of newspaper editors who criticized government. Indian removal. The Fugitive Slave Act. The Dred Scott decision. The Wounded Knee massacre. Plessy v. Ferguson. Jim Crow laws. The firebombing of Tokyo. The mass internment of Japanese-Americans. The secret bombing of Cambodia. Drone attacks on Pakistani wedding parties. Indefinite military detention. The wisdom of government is virtually infinite, and has created a world of steady progress. When we act individually, we are irrational and reckless. When government officials act upon the human society from which they ascended, they do better to help us all reach our proper goals.

Indeed, this is but a partial list, as it omits the deep wisdom of, say, the European state. In Europe, too, government officials acting from relatively objective positions have been able to create clear examples of rational progress. Like miles of trenches cloaked in poison gas, say, or a uniquely efficient rail system in Poland.

For some final, powerful examples of Conly’s argument at work in the real world, just read the very first sentence of her book, which explains the problems a paternalistic government could help us to solve: “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.”

See? Too much debt! No savings for the future!

We individuals and societies are reckless, but government would never behave like that.

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BBC News Magazine:

Mass panic and hysteria swept the United States on the eve of Halloween in 1938, when an all-too-realistic radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds sent untold thousands of people into the streets or heading for the hills.

The radio show was so terrifying in its accounts of invading Martians wielding deadly heat-rays that it is remembered like no other radio programme.

The reality:

Most newspapers printed dispatches sent by wire services such as the Associated Press, which extrapolated widespread fear from small numbers of scattered, anecdotal accounts.

Newspapers, moreover, reported no deaths or serious injuries related to The War of the Worlds broadcast: had panic and hysteria seized America that night, the mayhem surely would have caused many deaths and injuries.

For newspapers, the so-called “panic broadcast” brought newspapers an exceptional opportunity to censure radio, a still-new medium that was becoming a serious competitor in providing news and advertising.

The myth of mass panics seems to underlie a lot of bad policy-making. Remember the overreaction to Katrina? So it’s pretty unsurprising that the oft-told tale of mass panic during Orson Welles’ broadcast turns out to be completely false. People are more resilient than paternalists give them credit for.

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This proposal in the UK to tax “fatties” highlights once again how once government gets deeply involved in funding health care, the pressures to control people’s lifestyles become significant. This is the same argument we hear from supporters of sky-high cigarette taxes, smoking bans, seat-belt and helmet laws, ad nauseam. “We all pay for it.” If only we didn’t.

More on the public health scam.

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Having taken on left-liberals in my last post, it’s only fair to take a shot at the right too. Here‘s the Deseret News editorializing on why our recommendations for Utah are wrong:

The report’s authors are clear about their definition of freedom. “In our view, individuals should be allowed to dispose of their lives, liberties, and properties as they see fit, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others,” they write. But few personal behaviors can intrude more on the rights of others than drinking alcohol and gambling… [T]he enormous alcohol industry, relentlessly pushing everything from glamorous images to new products such as sweet-flavored alco-pops, would, if left unfettered, eventually rob more people of freedoms.

The line taken here seems to be that if you make bad decisions that decrease your life satisfaction, you have lost freedom (to whom?). And if you encourage someone to make a decision that might be bad, you’ve violated his rights. For the benefit of the Deseret News, I’ve compiled a new list of policy recommendations for Utah based on this new definition of freedom:

1. The enormous credit card industry gets people hooked on cheap credit, and the debt they take on means less freedom. Enact a state monopoly of credit.

2. Television and books encourage people to sit at home rather than get up and exercise, resulting in an epidemic of obesity and, of course, violating their victims’ rights. Tightly regulate their use.

3. Many people get involved in mistaken relationships when they are young, sometimes resulting in children and often resulting in heartbreak. Clearly these young lovers have taken away each other’s freedoms. Ban fornication. Fund a virtue police to monitor young couples. Iran has a system that works, at least compared to decadent, unfree societies in the West.

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From Peter Ubel in Free Market Madness: Why Human Nature Is at Odds with Economics—And Why It Matters (Harvard Business Press, 2009):

The government could, theoretically, change the finances of the food industry enough to halt the obesity epidemic. [...] Given that information alone may not suffice to encourage better eating habits, policy makers should consider yet another approach to combat obesity—an approach that structures people’s choices in ways that will lead them to make better choices, not through incentives or coercion, but through emotional or even unconscious psychological forces. (pp. 214, 217-18)

Ubel is a “physician and behavioral scientist” at the University of Michigan. He is apparently unaware of the manifest difficulties with which the word “theoretically” is fraught in the first sentence above; he is likewise apparently unaware of the frightening implications of a medical doctor and behavioral scientist proposing that the government use “emotional or even unconscious psychological forces” to manipulate its citizenry into making what he or it deems “better choices.”

Perhaps someone should remind Dr. Ubel that such things have been tried with a fair amount of vigor and dispatch during the twentieth century; perhaps he would like to inquire into the results?

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The City of Boston and Carney Hospital in Dorchester, Massachusetts are banning the sale of sugar-sweetened drinks at their facilities and events.  This includes the much-loved Gatorade.  

Public Enemy

Mayor Thomas “Mumbles” Menino justified the ban by arguing: “I want to make this a healthier choice, the easier choice in people’s daily lives, whether it’s the schools, the work sites or other places in the community.”   Hmmm….as someone on a national radio show that I stumbled onto while driving today nicely pointed out, Menino (and the Carney Hospital) isn’t exactly allowing people to make a choice in what they buy in those places since he’s banning the sale altogether.  This isn’t the case of him making it easier to make that choice by offering healthy alternatives or placing those alternatives in more accessible or attractive places for consumers; he’s restricting the ability of people to make any choice of what they buy on city property.  To defend Menino, people still can choose in the fullest sense — but he’s imposing some not unsubstantial costs on them (for example, it is a real pain to have to bring soda to a city dinner or local football game just to have a Coke with your rubber chicken or luke-warm hot dog). 

Now people being generally rational actors who will go to great lengths to satisfy their preferences, my guess is that we’ll just see a lot more folks walking down the street from their city office to the convenience store to buy what they really want or planning ahead and bringing soda onto the premises (which will probably inspire the good mayor  – riffing off of some of Mayor Bloomberg’s actions a few hours south – to think about banning the consumption of such evil products on city property).  Or people will buy things they don’t actually prefer – so that will shrink total welfare.

But I guess that Mayor Menino – like all public servants – just knows what is best for us, and he’s going to do everything he can do (within the limits of political acceptability) to make us comply.

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When it comes to supposed threats to Americans’ freedoms originating in academe, conservatives often like to point out the mouldering Marxists in various humanities departments around the country. I am largely unconcerned, except to the extent that these professors impose ideological orthodoxy on their students or erode academic standards. No, a far larger and more imminent threat comes from the inherently politicized discipline of “public health.”

Formerly a discipline devoted to research on sanitation and epidemiology, public health is now more or less an explicitly ideological field devoted to ginning up panic over freely chosen, private behaviors and to cheerleading for paternalist government action to prohibit or discourage them. Take any fun activity enjoyed by those who are not urbanized, (generally) white, middle-aged, highly educated professionals – smoking, shooting, drinking, eating tasty food, calling a friend in the car, generally exercising “personal freedoms” – “public health advocates” are agin’ it. (Of course, you don’t see them agitating against marathon running or rock climbing or bungee-jumping or long-distance hiking or extramarital sex. Fun, risky things that urbanized, highly educated professionals like.)

The question the public-healthies (for short) never think to ask is: Does maximum health make people better off? If people are aware of the risks of an activity, and do it anyway, doesn’t that very fact show that they are better off being permitted to do it? Why is there a need to tax or regulate them into compliance with your preferences? If you think that people are not aware of the risks, why not restrict yourselves to educating them – in a sane, reasoned, non-hysterical way?

The new public-healthery has (more…)

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There is a lot of talk these days about the need for enlightened and educated people to help guide—nudgeif you will—people’s choices. Academics especially have a penchant for believing it their right, perhaps even their humanitarian duty, to protect others from their own bad decisions.

Albert Jay Nock called this a “monstrous itch” to run other people’s lives, and he argued that, although adorned with benevolent language and intentions, this itch can lead to enforcement with totalitarian ferocity. There seems no end to what people will do, no moral lines or boundaries or principles they will not cross, if they believe they are doing it “for your own good.” Hence “monstrous.”

As an academic I encounter this impulse regularly, but it was not until I came to live and work in the New York City area that I fully appreciated it. Here is how the conversation often goes:

Enlightened Person: “We know that [fill in the blank---activity x, y, z] is bad [good] for people, so we have to help people who aren’t educated to make the right choices.”

Me: “What do you mean by ‘help’ them?”

EP: “We have to educate them to make good choices.”

Me: “What if they still make the ‘wrong’ choices after you’ve ‘educated’ them?”

EP: “We owe it to them to help them.”

Me: “Do you include yourself in that?”

EP: “What do you mean?”

Me: “Do you think people should ‘help’ you make the right choices, out of fear you might make the wrong ones?”

EP: “Oh, no, I’m already educated. I mean the uneducated people.”

Me: “Who do you have in mind?”

EP: “Like people in the South.”

The discussion then usually continues with a tale of horror at what the Enlightened Person has read about or seen on TV happens in the South: the things they’d teach in school if left to their own devices, the things they teach in their churches, the food they eat, the guns they own, and so on. This is a Backward People, the EP is sure, and they are sorely in need of the benevolent guidance.

I am in an unusual position to appreciate this attitude. I grew up in the Chicago area, where the attitude is far less common, and I spent ten years living in Alabama—which is really the belly of the beast, the lowest of the low, for New Yorkers. Indeed, it is for some people in Alabama too: the University of Alabama, where I used to teach, had—and I presume still has—a fair number of faculty who came to UA specifically to bring, as they saw it, enlightenment to these backward, benighted bigots. The people in the state of Alabama, who pay a large portion of the budget of the university, usually had no idea in what contempt many of the faculty hold them.

So I have been struck at how much elitism there is in the New York area, and how much condecension there is toward—well, toward just about all non-New Yorkers—but especially toward the South. The South occupies its own special plane of low in the eyes of New Yorkers, filled, as they are sure it is, with all the worst dregs of humankind, a veritable cess pool of racism, ignorance, troglodytic tastes, barbaric impulses, and destructive vice.

Yet for all that I think the New Englanders need the Southerners—and especially those New Englanders who have that “monstrous itch” that Nock talked about. The reason: the South is always the ready-to-hand example of why enlightened people need to rule. One look at the South will show you that the EPs are obviously, and desperately, needed.

I call this argument form the reductio ad Nascaram: Individual liberty is fine and excellent, but only for those fit to enjoy it properly; just as parents must limit the choices of their children, so too must the enlightened limit the choices of the benighted. So individual freedom should be respected until we get to the point on the human continuum where intellectual development is so lacking that it compromises personhood. Locke said that point was when the people we are talking about are children, madmen, or “ideots”; for contemporary enlightened persons, it is when the people we are talking about are Southerners.  

As long, then, as there are people, like those in the South, who continue to make such horrendously bad choices, there will be a need for others, like us, to guide, nudge, even require or restrict, them to make good choices—for their own good.

What would so many of the enlightened people do if it were not for the South? There is so much work still to be done, so many nudges yet to be made, so much work for the philosopher kings. Thank God for the South!


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Our esteemed ringleader Mr. Cleveland has prodded me to do a post on “children’s rights,” following last week’s discussion of abortion. My musings here are largely based on a paper (PDF) I did a number of years ago.

What do parents owe their children? And may these obligations be legally enforced? Most of us rightly think that children are unlike adults in two ways. First, children have a right to positive provision that adults may not enjoy. Parents have a duty (that ought to be legally enforced) to provide for their children’s basic welfare. Allowing your child to starve or expelling it into the street like a trespasser is both morally wrong and punishable. Second, parents (and perhaps the state) enjoy the right and indeed obligation to treat their children paternalistically in order to guide their development to full rationality. They have the duty and therefore right (“ought” implies “may”) to prevent their children from, e.g., taking harmful drugs or having sex before the age of maturity. Libertarians would certainly say that no one has the right to prevent sane adults from doing these things. So how do we justify this moral distinction between children and adults?

Rights are correlative with obligations. So if children have a right to provision, parents have a duty to provide it. But to whom? Are parents’ duties actually to their children as such? Ordinarily, we think of rights as alienable, i.e., you can waive them if you want. But children don’t have the ability to consent to waiving their rights. So there’s still something a bit weird here. And what about parents’ duty/right to treat children paternalistically? Do children have a duty to obey their parents?

My answer is no, children do not have a duty to obey their parents. First, many children are too young to understand moral duties, so clearly they can have no moral duties. Second, children did not consent to being born or to living in the family in which they find themselves. So how can you acquire a positive obligation to obey someone else if you never did anything positive to assume such an obligation? And how could such an obligation, if it exists, suddenly disappear at maturity?

I would argue that children have rights in virtue of the rationality they will eventually enjoy. If raised tolerably well, children will grow into fully rational, capable adults with the regular panoply of natural rights.(*) Children as children may not know what their best interests are, but as adults they will. If those interests are compromised, it is ultimately the mature, self-aware adult who suffers. (The transition from childhood to maturity is gradual and continuous, but I’m using binary categories here for clarity.)

Parents have a duty to promote the development of their children into rational, capable adults. Depriving them of the necessities of life and of intellectual development violates their children’s rights. Moreover, parents have a duty to try to protect their children from their own harmful behaviors, and any positive action that anyone else may undertake to harm a child’s basic interests is wrong. On this basis, it is appropriate for a government to enforce “age of consent” laws for sex, drugs, etc. to prevent harms accruing to children who don’t know any better, and to buttress the parents’ right to safeguard their children’s development. The children may not realize any harm now, but the self-aware adults who they will become will.(**)

That selfsame respect for the rationality of a person that requires us to treat children paternalistically requires us to treat adults nonpaternalistically. Libertarianism, as a distinctive moral philosophy of natural rights, only makes sense if we draw clear distinctions among rational persons, not-yet-rational persons, and nonrational nonpersons. Treating adults paternalistically is wrong precisely because it is like treating them like children, the not-yet-rational. It disrespects them as persons. Utilitarianism, by contrast, makes no distinctions on the basis of rationality: both children and adults may be treated paternalistically. As a matter of practice, children probably require more paternalistic treatment than adults, but whenever adults tend to make systematic errors about their own interests, it’s appropriate on utilitarian grounds for others (the government) to “nudge” them in the right direction – libertarians reject this view. In the end, then, what seemed like a paradox for libertarianism – different rights for adults and children – turns out to be essential to the core of the philosophy.

(*)It may be argued that normal adults aren’t rational all the time. But what I mean by “rational” here is that a person has the capability for logical reflection and comprehension of moral rights and duties. This doesn’t mean that the capability is always exercised.

(**)Ages of consent are admittedly arbitrary, and there may be some children below the age of consent who are mature enough to make rational decisions about the prohibited behaviors. Ideally, I would favor a high age of consent to protect the rights of even “late bloomers,” along with a judicial emancipation procedure that would allow people below the age of consent to acquire some or all of the rights of maturity.


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