The following is from an article by Cass Sunstein, writing in The New York Review of Books. It’s a review of “Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism” by Sarah Conly.
This quote will give you an idea of why I rarely read the New York Review of Books — and when I do, I’m always sorry:
Because of her focus on the means to the ends people want, Conly’s preferred form of paternalism is far more modest than imaginable alternatives.
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.
Because hers is a paternalism of means rather than ends, she would not authorize government to stamp out sin (as, for example, by forbidding certain forms of sexual behavior) or otherwise direct people to follow official views about what a good life entails. She wants government to act to overcome cognitive errors while respecting people’s judgments about their own needs, goals, and values.
(Source: New York Review of Books online, March 7, 2013)
Remember that these are favorable reviews of books read by people who run our government in Washington D.C. Ideas have consequences, and there’s no escaping ideas in any human endeavor. These are the ideas that inform our President, our Senators, our government administrators — really everyone in the academic and government establishment of our time.
Looking at this psychologically, I see rationalization at work.
Conly is essentially saying: ‘Paternalism is actually OK, if it’s a paternalism of means rather than ends.’
It’s based on the oldest rationalization there is: The ends justifies the means. ‘If it’s for your own good — as I define it — then it will work out, in the end.’
Of course, in a fully free society, people are free to choose their own ends. They’re free to be wrong, right, debatably so or not—so long as they do not initiate force or fraud against another.
In Conly’s world ‘if the benefits justify the costs’ then freedom is neither desirable nor necessary.
Now think about this for a moment. Imagine if someone decided for you that ‘it’s more important that you buy a new car than a new television this year.’ Or, ‘It’s not time to upgrade to the new smart phone model. It’s for your own good.’ Let’s say this someone works in the federal government, or at a prominent university, and has done the math to supposedly prove that this is better for society as well as yourself.
Wouldn’t you resent being told this? If so, why?
If you’re like any reasonable person, you’d deeply resent being told what’s more or less important to do at a given point in time. You’d resent it from an intrusive family member—who does not possess the threat of force—and you’d resent it even more from a government operative who wears the Communist symbol, the Nazi (National Socialist) emblem, or even the red-white-and-blue label claiming to know what’s best.
Government-rationalized paternalism has been around a long time, even in the only theoretically free United States. It dates back at least to the 1930s, in full-blown form under the New Deal, and undoubtedly even earlier than that.
What’s perhaps new and ‘innovative’ about Conly’s approach to rationalization and evasion is the following:
She wants government to act to overcome cognitive errors while respecting people’s judgments about their own needs, goals, and values.
Now this is truly incredible.
This basically amounts to saying that government can and should think for people while still leaving them to their preferences.
This is so classically and typically ‘leftist.’ (Not that the contemporary ‘right’ stands for anything at all—but leftism is the creed of our day, if only by default.) According to the prevailing and rigidly established postmodern orthodoxy, ‘freedom’ consists of leaving people free to choose their sexual partners and control their reproduction — unquestionably individual rights, for sure — while having little or no say in using their brains.
Or put another way: You’re free to choose your goals, but not the means. You’re free to do, but not to think.
How exactly does this work? How does all this fit together, even in theory?!
This explains why government as we know it is aggressively expanding its reach over all areas of the economy: the stock market, the financial industry, medical care, and possibly (my prediction when the next crisis hits) even broadcasting, Internet and media — while leaving us ‘free’ to reproduce and have sex as we see fit.
It’s almost as if the authorities see us not as little children, but more as nonconceptual animals (dogs, cats, buffalo), determined by our instincts while incapable of any independent decision-making on the abstract, conceptual level.
In practice right now, we have the fascist little mayor of New York City (Bloomberg, pictured)—acting and speaking on behalf of the same mentality represented by this book review—telling us we’re not free to drink diet sodas, but we are free to have unconventional sex and abortions.
Why freedom in one area, and not another?
If we arbitrarily allow government officials to abstain from enslaving us in one area, while having a field day of regulatory control in another, we’re ultimately encouraging them to ignore the only basis for that which makes any freedom possible: the exercise of our thinking and reasoning minds.
Conly apparently believes that while we need government to tell us how to eat, when to purchase houses or cars or when not to do so, and ultimately even what to think, it’s likewise OK for government to leave us alone when it comes to sex or reproduction because ‘ well, the only implication I can see is that these arenas, according to Conly, involve no thought or reasoning.
It’s an interesting self-revelation, isn’t it? Not just about the author, but by the kind of self-refuting twits a plurality of us keep consenting to rule over us. Maybe their pathological need to control others arises from the complete lack of respect they have for human cognition — particularly their own.
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