A book for the Age of Obama 1

Let’s listen in on a conversation the socialists are having among themselves. Brace yourselves, fellow individualists!

In the New York Review of Books, Cass Sunstein writes about a book by Sarah Conly titled Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism. It is the book for the Age of Obama.

“Coercive Paternalism” is a flimsy euphemism. The book argues for dictatorship.

Cass Sunstein’s review is titled It’s For Your Own Good!

Conly’s case, as the title signals, is that we ordinary mortals cannot make the “right” decisions for ourselves and so need those who work in government offices, and are by virtue of that fact superior to us in knowledge and judgment, to decide for us how we should live.

Sunstein writes:

In the United States, as in many other countries, obesity is a serious problem.

For whom? If for the obese, the remedy is in their own hands. Only a socialist can think of fat people as a political problem.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to do something about it. … In 2012, he proposed to ban the sale of sweetened drinks in containers larger than sixteen ounces at restaurants, delis, theaters, stadiums, and food courts. The New York City Board of Health approved the ban.

Many people were outraged by what they saw as an egregious illustration of the nanny state in action. Why shouldn’t people be allowed to choose a large bottle of Coca-Cola? The Center for Consumer Freedom responded with a vivid advertisement, depicting Mayor Bloomberg in a (scary) nanny outfit.

 

(from ConsumerFreedom.com)

Many Americans abhor paternalism. They think that people should be able to go their own way, even if they end up in a ditch. When they run risks, even foolish ones, it isn’t anybody’s business that they do. In this respect, a significant strand in American culture appears to endorse the central argument of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In his great essay, Mill insisted that as a general rule, government cannot legitimately coerce people if its only goal is to protect people from themselves. Mill contended that

the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or   mental, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.”

… Mill offered a number of independent justifications for his famous harm principle, but one of his most important claims is that individuals are in the best position to know what is good for them. In Mill’s view, the problem with outsiders, including government officials, is that they lack the necessary information. Mill insists that the individual “is the person most interested in his own well-being,” and the “ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else.”

When society seeks to overrule the individual’s judgment, Mill wrote, it does so on the basis of “general presumptions,” and these “may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases.” If the goal is to ensure that people’s lives go well, Mill contends that the best solution is for public officials to allow people to find their own path. Here, then, is an enduring argument … on behalf of free markets and free choice in countless situations, including those in which human beings choose to run risks that may not turn out so well.

Mill’s claim has a great deal of intuitive appeal. But is it right? That is largely an empirical question, and it cannot be adequately answered by introspection and intuition. In recent decades, some of the most important research in social science, coming from psychologists and behavioral economists … 

Collectivists all  …

…  has been trying to answer it. That research is having a significant influence on public officials throughout the world. Many believe that behavioral findings are cutting away at some of the foundations of Mill’s harm principle, because they show that people make a lot of mistakes, and that those mistakes can prove extremely damaging.

Or because they, being socialists, have to try and defeat Mill’s argument for individual freedom.

Leaving aside the need to define a mistake, let’s look at what we now know the book is assuming: that there are beings on this earth, outside the category of “people”, who will never make mistakes; who are infallible in their judgment, and as omniscient as “God” is reputed to be. And Conly/Sunstein think  that therefore we should try to summon up enough good judgment to put ourselves in their hands. The hands of those who are angels of selfless kindness, motivated entirely and exclusively by consideration for us.

People may, for example, delay enrolling in a retirement plan, starting to diet or exercise, ceasing to smoke, going to the doctor, or using some valuable, cost-saving technology. Present bias can ensure serious long-term harm, including not merely economic losses but illness and premature death as well. …

So how is it anybody’s business except their own?

To those who have the mind-set of a collectivist, that question will never occur. If it is put to collectivists they will find it meaningless. You may as well be addressing them in a strange language. If they hear you at all they may get the impression that you are reacting with anger, but that will only be proof to them that you are too selfishly wrapped up in your own feelings to pay attention to their wise council.

A great deal of research finds that most people are unrealistically optimistic, in the sense that their own predictions about their behavior and their prospects are skewed in the optimistic direction. In one study, over 80 percent of drivers were found to believe that they were safer and more skillful than the median driver. Many smokers have an accurate sense of the statistical risks, but some smokers have been found to believe that they personally are less likely to face lung cancer and heart disease than the average nonsmoker. Optimism is far from the worst of human characteristics, but if people are unrealistically optimistic, they may decline to take sensible precautions against real risks. …

See in that paragraph how the very idea of the individual as a world in himself is lost to the sociological mind.

Emphasizing these and related behavioral findings, many people have been arguing for a new form of paternalism

In the United States, behavioral findings have played an unmistakable part in recent regulations involving retirement savings, fuel economy, energy efficiency, environmental protection, health care, and obesity. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron …

… who, make no mistake about it, is a man of the Left …

… has created a Behavioural Insights Team, sometimes known as the Nudge Unit, with the specific goal of incorporating an understanding of human behavior into policy initiatives. In short, behavioral economics is having a large impact all over the world, and the emphasis on human error is raising legitimate questions about the uses and limits of paternalism.

Can they not suspect that the Nudgers (and for the invention of  such “nudging” Sunstein takes credit in the review) may be as humanly susceptible to poor judgment as everybody else? Wait –  Sunstein does come to that. But he really, really likes paternalism.

Until now, we have lacked a serious philosophical discussion of whether and how recent behavioral findings undermine Mill’s harm principle and thus open the way toward paternalism.

As if every tyrant in history, every king, every chief, every dictator has not seen himself as the Father of his people!   

Sarah Conly’s illuminating book Against Autonomy provides such a discussion. Her starting point is that in light of the recent findings, we should be able to agree that Mill was quite wrong about the competence of human beings as choosers. “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.”

You (possibly overweight and improvident) persons who pursue your private unexceptional ends invisibly; or who aim high, investigating our universe; inventing new technologies; working in advanced mathematics; exploring new territories of the earth and the imagination, going boldly where no man has gone before; composing, discovering … You for whom one crowded hour of glorious (perhaps gluttonous) life is worth an age without a name … You who wish to die … Take your minds off your vocation, your vision, your inspiration, your personal drama or despair. Concentrate on being one of the herd. Be like the rest. Obey the masters in office. Be thin. Live austerely. Do as you’re told – or “nudged”?

Well, no. Nudging might not be enough.

With that claim in mind, Conly insists that coercion should not be ruled out of bounds. She wants to go far beyond nudges. In her view, the appropriate government response to human errors depends not on high-level abstractions about the value of choice, but on pragmatic judgments about the costs and benefits of paternalistic interventions. Even when there is only harm to self, she thinks that government may and indeed must act paternalistically so long as the benefits justify the costs.

“Benefits” in whose estimation? Costs to whom?

Conly is quite aware that her view runs up against widespread intuitions and commitments.

Not to say against the highest aspirations of mankind and the Constitution of the United States. 

For many people, a benefit may consist precisely in their ability to choose freely even if the outcome is disappointing. She responds that autonomy is “not valuable enough to offset what we lose by leaving people to their own autonomous choices.” Conly is aware that people often prefer to choose freely and may be exceedingly frustrated if government overrides their choices. If a paternalistic intervention would cause frustration, it is imposing a cost, and that cost must count in the overall calculus. But Conly insists that people’s frustration is merely one consideration among many. If a paternalistic intervention can prevent long-term harm — for example, by eliminating risks of premature death — it might well be justified even if people are keenly frustrated by it.

Apparently it has not occurred to those who nudge or coerce us for our own good that some among us may reject life long before old age.

Conly does concede, however, that people should be allowed to do certain things they may in their foolishness want to do. By a wild leap of imagination she arrives at stamp-collecting as an example of what might be permitted – 0r so Sunstein reports or suggests:

If people really love collecting comic books, stamps, or license plates, there is no occasion to intervene.

She describes the adverse reaction people may have to coercion by a dictatorial government as “frustration’. She seems to be unaware of the intense suffering those have endured who have had to live under dictatorships. And she seems to think that persons granted the power to force you to do such nice little things as to eat only what a government allows, put money away in savings accounts, and refrain from smoking will never, never use that power to lock you up or kill you. We itch to send her a long list of books that would inform and enlighten her if we had the least hope she would read them. But we are skeptics, and have no such hope.

We said that this is the theme of a conversation within the Left. The discussion in the review comes down to a small difference of opinon between the advocate of “nudging” (Sunstein), and the advocate of force (Conly). Sunstein does acknowledge differences of taste, and even the possibility of “official errors” – and fears repercussions:

Conly is right to insist that no democratic government can or should live entirely within Mill’s strictures. But in my view, she underestimates the possibility that once all benefits and all costs are considered, we will generally be drawn to approaches that preserve freedom of choice. … Our ends are hardly limited to longevity and health; our short-term goals are a large part of what makes life worth living. …

Freedom of choice is an important safeguard against the potential mistakes of even the most well-motivated officials. … Officials may well be subject to the same kinds of errors that concern Conly in the first place. … We might be inclined to favor freedom of choice as a way of … providing a safety valve in the event of official errors.

But having raised these few points of disagreement with Conly, Sunstein concludes that she -

… convincingly argues that behavioral findings raise significant questions about Mill’s harm principle. When people are imposing serious risks on themselves, it is not enough to celebrate freedom of choice and ignore the consequences.

If Sunstein, Conly, and their fellow socialists are not persuaded by John Stuart Mill, they will almost certainly not take account of what contemporary individualists have to say. But we can remind one another that among the consequences of freedom of choice are all the highest achievements of our history.

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  • liz

    This is so depressing. That anyone would even consider this idea seriously, much less write a book about it, and then for it to be presented by the reviewer as worthy of consideration…
    As you astutely point out, Conly never seems to think that those in control might not be of pure motives (how naive and in lalaland can you get?), and Sunstein hardly mentions it. Idiocy and hypocrisy taken to the ultimate levels.