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The New Paternalism

1:24 PM, Apr 26, 2013 • By ABBY WISSE SCHACHTER
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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.

Aside from the skin-crawly nature of this type of argumentation, doesn’t it seem obvious how infantilizing and anti-democratic this all is? Sunstein and Conly, Harris and the Howard student are all saying that individual adults can’t operate their lives effectively or successfully because they may make poor decisions on occasion. Instead we are supposed to cede our right to make free choices? Is this the reason our founders established a representative democracy?

The answer to both is no, and here are the reasons why.

First, our nation was founded to be a liberal democracy, where our right to the “pursuit” of happiness is protected. Not achieving happiness, mind you, but the means to trying to achieve it. As Niall Ferguson just reminded us Margaret Thatcher defined the “British inheritance” as “a man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the state as servant and not as master… They are the essence of a free economy. And on that freedom all our other freedoms depend.” America’s “inheritance” is the same.

Second, we didn’t need science to tell us that humans make mistakes and don’t always choose what is best for themselves or others. But whoever supposes that government is any more efficient, effective or better able to discern what is in an individuals’ best interest? No reasonable paternalist could argue that government is completely reliable when it comes to objectively defining problems, without bias or special interests, deciding on the best course of action and then perfectly implementing those policy choices. Please.

Finally, government paternalism offends me as a parent. One of the biggest responsibilities my husband and I took on when we had our kids is to teach them moral, practical, and civic lessons. But at some point, we know we will have to trust that we’ve done as much as we can to inculcate those values, and we will trust our children with the freedom to decide on their own. We will let go, in other words. We don’t expect that our kids will have it easy or that they won’t face disappointments and suffer the pain of mistakes. But that is how they will learn and how they will grow to be adults.

The new paternalists are like parents of eternal toddlers; they never want to let go. Sunstein and company simply don’t trust that individuals can be left to decide what is best. They prefer to believe that they–and only they–have the keys to a “happy” life and that it is only government that can reliably deliver that happiness. Besides the debilitating dependency this has already inculcated (how many receiving food stamps and disability checks admit they are scared to give it up?), it has lower expectations for what it means to be a responsible member of society. When you lower expectations, you get lower outcomes.

Abby Wisse Schachter is a Pittsburgh-based writer and blogger. Her web site is captainmommy.com.

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