The Blog

The New Paternalism

1:24 PM, Apr 26, 2013 • By ABBY WISSE SCHACHTER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Paternalism is having a good run these days.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg

An MSNBC host promotes her network by declaring that “children don’t belong to their parents,” insisting that the community, and especially the government, has to be responsible for all kids. In a follow-up promo, Melissa Harris-Perry doubled down by declaring that all Americans, especially kids, have the “right to … healthcare, education, decent housing and quality food at all times.”

A Howard University student told Sen. Rand Paul after his speech there that he wants “a government that is going to help me.”

We’ve also been treated to a couple of academic heavyweights cheering for the nanny state. President Obama’s former regulation czar Cass Sunstein writes in the New Republic that government paternalism “is your friend.” And Bowdoin sociologist Sarah Conly argues in the New York Times that we should all be grateful for Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban and various other forms of paternalism that we (ahem) enjoy.

This is all so shocking though because it comes from liberals and in reality, championing the state as nanny, father, mother, controller is about as illiberal and anti-democratic as it gets.

Sunstein argues that we should be grateful for government mandates on automobile emissions because the consumer is going to benefit “in the form of gas savings” over the life of the new car. Perhaps we should forgive the man in the ivory tower, but Sunstein is ignoring the obvious reason car buyers have rejected voluntary purchases of higher gas mileage, and lower emissions cars: They cost much, much more. Since the Obama administration wasn’t happy with the private market “nudge” consumers were getting to buy the more expensive, lower emissions cars it legislated a shove by making lower-emissions cars a requirement.

Sunstein also has the audacity to claim that smokers are “happier” to pay exorbitant taxes to feed their habit because “smokers tend to be less happy because they smoke. When they are taxed, they smoke less and might even quit, and they are better off as a result.” President Obama obviously ascribes to this nanny state logic since his new budget proposes a $0.94 increase in cigarette taxes to just under $2.

As George Mason University economist Donald Boudreaux points out in his review of Simpler, Sunstein’s new book on this topic, “the author assumes without much reflection” that these “nudges” can actually turn out to be unethical or even unconstitutional as a federal appeals court found in the case of FDA-approved warning labels that included grisly images of cancer-ridden lungs.

Conly argues that no one should be against Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban because really, how can it be bad to prevent people from indulging in a 16-ounce syrupy beverage? After all, society as a whole ends up paying for that overindulgence in the form of higher health care demands and costs, so why not just force people to be healthier in the first place?

Conly says that objections to the soda ban are based on a “false” understanding: “We have a vision of ourselves as free, rational beings who are totally capable of making all the decisions we need to in order to create a good life. Give us complete liberty, and, barring natural disasters, we’ll end up where we want to be. It’s a nice vision, one that makes us feel proud of ourselves.”

Conly declares that social science, behavioral economics and psychology have all proven beyond doubt that this notion of our infallible ability to make good choices is wrong. She and Sunstein have both argued that due to various “scientifically” proven “biases” we are unable to make the best decision every time. And since individuals are lousy at choosing what is in our own self-interest–for our long-term health and well-being–we should therefore have some decisions taken out of our hands completely or given limited choices between government-approved options for the betterment of ourselves and society as a whole.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers