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Self-Referential Paternalist Foibles
February 21, 2013
Editorial By Tibor Machan
Over the last several years, statists have changed their tune a bit. Instead of advocating Draconian governmental intrusions on people's lives, in the tradition of the Soviets and other unabashed tyrants, they have at least seemingly reformed and changed their tune: Now they mostly promote the nanny state (under such labels as libertarian paternalism, nudging and so forth). These champions of government interference in our lives are convinced, it seems, that they can somehow select a restrained government which then can carry out various worthy regulations and regiment us all to our benefit without succumbing to the temptation of absolute power. They appear to be heeding Lord Acton's admonition that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely by not by refraining to support the wielding of power by some people over others. No, they think they can moderate their tyrannical habits by promoting what I have called as far back as the 1970s a regime of petty tyranny.* Their intrusiveness will be gentle, delicate, subtle, considerate and kind – like that of nannies – unless you offer resistance, in which case the more Draconian statism is just around the corner.
The most visible promoter of this kind of statism is the political theorist and law professor Cass Sunstein, now teaching at Harvard University where he has joined Michael Sandel and others in the effort to erase all libertarian elements of American law and public policy. He has been promoting the paternalistic state for some time but more recently he has revved up his efforts, with books, reviews, essays, speeches, media appearances pouring out and with political allies in the corridors of power standing ready to turn his ideas into public policies and laws.
At the foundation of this paternalism lies the belief that many of us ordinary blokes need some pushing around – nudging, as Sunstein calls it – so we conduct ourselves properly, sensibly, prudently, wisely – in short, virtuously. Never mind that virtuous conduct needs to be freely chosen for it to amount to something praiseworthy. Much of such conduct has to do with not harming others or ourselves and despite the widely shared belief in John Stuart Mill's idea that not unless one harms others may he or she be forced to desist, if one holds that harmful conduct in and of itself must be averted, public policies will live up to that expectation. The state and its cheerleaders will stand ready to run interference if we do not behave well.
Of course, underlying all this there is a highly dubious assumption, namely, that those who will identify our misconduct and stand ready to straighten all of us out are properly fit to do that job. In short, there is a segment of society, an elite, if you will, that is knowledgeable and virtuous to be entrusted with the power to make the rest of us do the right thing.
This elite is somehow deemed immune to the flaws that render all the rest of us in need of the interference by the nanny state. These folks seem somehow to not be flawed as we are so that when they administer their remedial measures upon us, that itself is not vulnerable to malfeasance. The good and wise operators of the government can be fully trusted with the power Cass Sunstein & Co. believe we need to have imposed upon us for us to live right.
None of this is new, of course. Political thinking since the time of Plato and his teacher, Socrates, had often veered in the direction of the more or less overt tyranny Sunstein & Co. are championing. Indeed, only a few of human history's outstanding political philosophers and theorists set out to warn against entrusting a special group with power over the rest. So long as the intention behind such power wielding was successfully promulgated as benign, kind, generous, helpful – that is to say, paternalistic – why oppose it?
The main reason is that no one has the proper authority to play parent to another except in very rare circumstances, mainly when he or she is indeed a parent of that other, with the responsibility to be the caregiver. Government, as the American founders realized, must refrain from such paternalism not only because it is likely to be inept but mainly because sovereignty belongs to the adult citizens of society – all of them, not just to some special group which is, after all, no less susceptible to malpractice as are the rest of us.
Whatever help we require with setting us on the right course must not come at the expense of our basic rights, our nature as sovereign individuals.
*See "The Petty Tyranny of Government Regulation," in Tibor R. Machan & M. Bruce Johnson, Rights and Regulation (SF: Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research, 1983), 259-288.