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The New Paternalism

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

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