It’s For My Own Good?

Originally published at Canada Free Press

I happened across an as-yet-to-be-published review in the New York Review of Books  of a newly released book by Sarah Conly.  The review itself is apparently scheduled for publication on March 7, 2013 and it has been authored by that famous (or if you prefer, infamous) Obama regulatory “czar”, Cass Sunstein.

The book itself is titled Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism (Cambridge University Press, 206 pp., $95.00)

I hadn’t even gotten past the title and bibliographical references when I realized that for those of us who have been writing about the idiocies, stupidities and hypocrisies of our benighted friends of the Progressive left, Cass Sunstein is just the gift that keeps on giving.  Who else comes to mind when the title of the book review is (and as Dave Barry would put it, “I am not making this up!”) “It’s For Your Own Good!

Take a second look at the book’s title, for example.  A female author has written a book justifying “paternalism”.  In any other context, the National Organization of Women, Code Pink, or perhaps Sandra Fluke, would be suffering apoplexy just reading that this tome was a justification for paternalism of any sort.

Sunstein begins with a description of the nanny state run amok as embodied by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the fiasco of Bloomberg decreeing that henceforth no soda will be sold in containers that exceed 16 ounces.

This is followed by a sentence that illustrates why Professor Sunstein (a member of the faculty at Harvard University) is so esteemed by the Obama administration for his startling grasp of the obvious.  Sunstein reports that:

“Many people were outraged by what they saw as an egregious illustration of the nanny state in action.”

It’s certainly easy to see why Harvard hired this guy, isn’t it?

Mr. Sunstein alludes to resistance among ordinary Americans to any sort of coercion with regard to behavior that only hurts the individual, but are who are more willing to accept coercion regarding behavior that could potentially harm another person.  No one seems particularly upset with the idea of the government mandating that before you actually practice medicine, the practitioner must provide proof that they have actually studied medicine at a medical school.  But the idea that the government will decide what your child is allowed to eat for lunch while in school has created a firestorm of protest.

Sunstein ignores the actual culture of America and lays the blame for this idiotic resistance to following the rules laid down by “experts” and our “betters” at the feet of John Stuart Mill, the great 19th century thinker, and quotes a passage from Mill that sums up that gentleman’s philosophy on the uses of governmental power:

“…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.”

He goes further saying:

If the goal is to ensure that people’s lives go well, Mill contends that the best solution is for public officials to allow people to find their own path. Here, then, is an enduring argument, instrumental in character, on behalf of free markets and free choice in countless situations, including those in which human beings choose to run risks that may not turn out so well.

Sunstein goes on to cast doubt on Mill’s assessment based on his judgment that Mill’s view reflects the idea that individuals might know the end result they are trying to achieve better than any bureaucrat in Washington, Albany, Sacramento or Dallas might, but that individuals are not always competent to determine how to go about achieving those end results.

So Sunstein is saying that paternalism is based on us being patronized by people like himself because we are, collectively, incompetent.

Sunstein goes on to wrap his personal beliefs regarding coercive authoritarianism in a shroud of pseudo-science:

Mill’s claim has a great deal of intuitive appeal. But is it right? That is largely an empirical question, and it cannot be adequately answered by introspection and intuition. In recent decades, some of the most important research in social science, coming from psychologists and behavioral economists, has been trying to answer it. That research is having a significant influence on public officials throughout the world. Many believe that behavioral findings are cutting away at some of the foundations of Mill’s harm principle, because they show that people make a lot of mistakes, and that those mistakes can prove extremely damaging.

Now I have great respect for psychologists who are actually trying to help some individual with real problems.  As for respect for psychologists who spend all day torturing rats in mazes so they can pontificate about what the behavior of said rats indicates about the behavior of human beings, well, not so much.  The same evaluation applies to behavioral economists, who try to understand why prices of stock go up or down by evaluating the behavior of investors.  Of course, if such research was fruitful and they actually discovered the mechanism impacting the increase or decrease in the Dow Industrial Average, they wouldn’t be behavior economists any more.  They would almost instantly become part of Obama’s class of “millionaires and billionaires.”  But in neither case is what they do really a science.  They see behaviors that have been frequently associated with bad outcomes or actions that might surface only years later.  The ultimate post-traumatic stress, if you will.  But in predicting those outcomes, they can only guess.  They can only make assumptions.  Or, they could use a Ouija board.

Sunstein’s assertion that this so-called research is, to use his own words, “having a significant influence on public officials throughout the world. Many believe that behavioral findings are cutting away at some of the foundations of Mill’s harm principle, because they show that people make a lot of mistakes, and that those mistakes can prove extremely damaging.”

Once again ol’ Cass has demonstrated a startling grasp of the obvious.  I mean who would ever have thought that “people make a lot of mistakes”?  People are fallible.  People are imperfect.  And without a feedback mechanism that inflicts at the very least some discomfort, people will not learn from those mistakes.  It once occurred to me that “Pain is just Mother Nature’s way of telling you that you just paid a tuition bill. You just learned something.”

A simple concept seems to escape Mr. Sunstein.  He apparently cannot admit that the same people who Sunstein thinks are capable of exercising “coercive paternalism” are themselves likely to make extremely damaging mistakes, even when they have the benefit of advice from “experts.”  I feel confident that there where rooms full of experts and reams and reams of analysis available when Barack Obama decided to guarantee loans for Solyndra.  Oops.  Yet the Obama administration, the epicenter of coercive paternalism, didn’t learn anything.  Why you might ask?  Where was the pain that would have taught anyone in the administration anything?  Apparently it called in sick that day, so Obama and his minions never paid their tuition bill and go merrily on repeating the same extremely damaging mistakes.

Ms. Conly herself makes the same unintentional point.  Again, quoting Sunstein:

Her starting point is that in light of the recent findings, we should be able to agree that Mill was quite wrong about the competence of human beings as 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. In her view, the appropriate government response to human errors depends not on high-level abstractions about the value of choice, but on pragmatic judgments about the costs and benefits of paternalistic interventions. 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.

“We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.”  Sounds like the result of actions of the very government Sunstein implies would do a much, much better job than we ourselves could do making our own decisions.  And Sunstein deftly sidesteps explaining the question of who gets the benefits of these decisions and who pays the costs.  Again, the management of Solyndra got a lot of the benefits while the American taxpayer got all the costs, while the Obama administration feels self-righteous about how good the decision was.

I will not be reading Ms. (or Doctor, or Professor or whatever her preferred title is) Conly’s opus any time soon. And it’s not the sticker shock of a $95.00 book, but rather just knowing that Professor Sunstein thinks it’s a great read and after reading it we should all just accept that others know so much better than we ourselves know about what we should do and how we should do it and that we should simply do what we are told to do without question or objection.

That attitude would sure make Mickey Bloomberg happy, wouldn’t it?


About Jim Yardley

Retired after 30 years as a financial controller for a variety of manufacturing firms, a two-tour Vietnam veteran, and independent voter.
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