Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Nanny Impulse

There is among liberal/progressives an inveterate and insufferable tendency toward what might be called nannyism - an irresistable desire to protect people from themselves for their own good whether people want to be protected or not. Thus, Mayor Bloomberg in New York has promulgated an ordinance which prohibits selling sodas in containers larger than 16 oz. because, evidently, he feels it's his moral duty to prevent people from choosing behaviors which are harmful to themselves.

When the tendency manifests itself on a small scale it's irritating, but when government takes on the role of a "nanny" it becomes dangerous and frightening. This, however, is exactly what Sarah Conly advocates in a book titled Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism which is guaranteed by its price of $95 for 206 pages to be read by almost no one.

Fortunately, we need not buy it to know how Conly thinks. We can get some insight into the working of the nanny mind by reading a review of the book by another votary of governmental officiousness, Cass Sunstein, in The New York Review of Books. Sunstein is sympathetic to Conly, but even he finds her prescriptions for government coercion of its citizens a bit over the top. Where she would advocate government compulsion, Sunstein advocates what he calls governmental "nudges." The question for both Sunstein and Conly, though, is what measures do they advocate should people prove unyielding to their nudges and compulsions? How far should government be willing to go to protect people from themselves? How much freedom should the state usurp from its citizens in order to make them healthier and happier against their will?

This excerpt from Sunstein's review of Conly's book offers a peek into the progressive mindset. Conly puts into print what many liberals think but are reluctant to make explicit. They want to control peoples' lives and decisions, for their own good, of course, but if the people don't appreciate it and don't want to go along, well, the poor saps just won't be given that option:
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 ... human beings [are incompetent] choosers. “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.” With that claim in mind, Conly insists that coercion should not be ruled out of bounds. She wants to go far beyond nudges....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.

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

To [the] claim that individuals are uniquely well-situated to know what is best for them, Conly objects that [this fails] to make a critical distinction between means and ends. True, people may know what their ends are, but sometimes they go wrong when they choose how to get them. Most people want to be healthy and to live long lives. If people are gaining a lot of weight, and hence jeopardizing their health, Conly supports paternalism—for example, she favors reducing portion size for many popular foods, on the theory that large, fattening servings can undermine people’s own goals.

At the same time, Conly insists that mandates and bans can be much more effective than mere nudges. If the benefits justify the costs, she is willing to eliminate freedom of choice, not to prevent people from obtaining their own goals but to ensure that they do so.

Conly’s most controversial claim is that because the health risks of smoking are so serious, the government should ban it. She is aware that many people like to smoke, that a ban could create black markets, and that both of these points count against a ban. But she concludes that education, warnings, and other nudges are insufficiently effective, and that a flat prohibition is likely to be justified by careful consideration of both benefits and costs, including the costs to the public of treating lung cancer and other consequences of smoking.
Again the question presents itself to our attention, how far are people like Conly, who doubtless consider themselves our betters, prepared to go to force others to act in ways that promote their own good? Sunstein's summation of her ideas reminds one of that early progressive hero Jean Jacques Rousseau who wrote that the state knows what you really need and want and if you persist in thinking otherwise the state will just have to kill you. What Rousseau made explicit has been the tacit conviction of the left ever since, and whenever they've managed to seize power, from Bonaparte to Kim Jong Il, that's pretty much what they've done.