Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Nanny Often Knows Best

John Stuart Mills' On Liberty is the basis of western political thought,  or at least the non authoritarian version.  According to Mills

The only purpose for which power can 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.
Eli's attention has been drawn to a book by Sarah Conly, Against Autonomy:  Justifying Coercive Paternalism reviewed by Cass Sunstein.  To Conly and Sunstein Mill's point of view can only stand if it is empirically justified that each is the best judge of their own good. 
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.
 There are many arguments supporting Sunstein's proposition sustained by research on the subject.  People overestimate their own capacities, underestimate risks, concentrate on the present to the cost of the future and cannot be expert on all of the issues upon which decisions need be made.  Still following Conly
There are those, however rare, who continue to think that all paternalistic constraints are unjustified - who would prefer a world without prescriptions for medicines, seat belts, or limits on interest rates, whatever the human costs.  For those who reject any paternalistic attempt to help people avoid the results of their own ignorance or poor choices , no argument may avail;  they may have a fundamentally different, and I would argue, morally unjustified, sense that people deserve to suffer for their own mistakes.  
Beyond this, in a world where people interact, there have to be paternalistic rules, if only to keep us from each others throats.  Conly stresses that paternalism implies a reciprocal duty to help others.  In her view it is not morally justified to leave others to suffer, something that Mills' requires, but paternalism involves us all in social interactions, the natural state of humans. 

Conly emphasizes that people confuse means and ends, they treat their decisions about means with the things they actually want and this is one place where paternalism can help people get what they want, for example health, by paternalistic limitations on what they do, for example, smoking and drinking. 

While the Adam and Eve is deeply ingrained in western culture, humans evolved in tribes where survival required mutual support and subjugation of autonomy.  Our increased control of our environment has opened up the possibilities of increased autonomy, but unlimited autonomy as we have seen degrades the environment upon which our autonomy depends. 

So it's a balancing act and it is easy to go too far in either direction, but to pretend that there is no ethical, historical, biological or economic justification either for autonomy or for paternalism is corrupt.  The old saw is that your freedom ends at the Bunny's ears, but the problem is that in an increasingly tangled world that boundary is not easy to find.


Russell Seitz said...

You don't have to be an enemy of liberty, property and the life of the mind to encourage the Nanny State .

But it helps.

Sou said...

I've known a few anarchists in my time but I don't believe I have ever met anyone who doesn't condone any form of social or personal limits being set.

The issue with virtually everyone seems to be one of degree. Where to draw the line and for which behaviours.

Interestingly, I had a stouch with a group of dyed in the wool libertarians who constantly bemoan what they see as the loss of freedom of speech in Australia.

What they most object to is:

a) they are not free to publicly incite hate on racial grounds, discriminate on the grounds of sex or defame others (It hasn't stopped them yet.); and

b) people disagreeing with them. They postulate that their 'free speech' is denied when someone disagrees with them on a particular subject (yeah, some of them are not too bright!).

I put some examples of what people say and do on my website, with my own critique, parody and satire. (Allowable under "fair use" provisions of copyright legislation here.)

Guess what - the first thing these 'free speech' libertarians do is protest (sometimes using such foul language I've had to delete a comment).

The next thing they have done is threaten to run to the 'nanny state' government, which they so despise, and sue me!

One person keeps promising to move his large discussion board to the USA to avoid, he believes, any blowback when defamation occurs. (That's been tried before and hasn't worked!)

People are strange!

William Connolley said...

> That is largely an empirical question

Bollocks. This isn't something you can settle by research; its settled by the political climate. Or if you prefer, "empirically" by the voters and those they elect. When Mills says "rightfully" he either means "because the people consent" (which is what I'm using, above) or he's using it in some more theoretical abstract sense, in which case empirical work can't touch it.

Steve Bloom said...

Just the one Mill, BTW. I'm shocked, shocked that Stoatie missed this and even repeated it!

Steve Bloom said...

And RS missed it too! These truly must be the End Days...

Sou said...

Seems to me that as the population grows and society becomes more complex, there are a lot more (humungously more) laws than there used to be. Do we need them all? Doubtful.

Which ones to get rid of though.

How many laws now re crossing the road, travelling from one place to another (by plane, train, car, bicyle or on foot) now compared to two centuries ago?

What about food safety legislation, environmental protection.

More laws are considered necessary because most individuals are so much further removed from the item being legislated (eg food processing, environment) - or because they are necessary for complex society to function in an orderly manner (eg transport and travel).

Once in place it's much harder to get rid of rules.

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

My lovely wife favors a legal code that can be reduced to 3 laws:

1)Don't be greedy.

2)Don't be stupid.

3)Don't be cruel.

The problem is that usually the people being greedy, stupid or cruel refuse to acknowledge the fact or they don't care.

For every stupid law or rule out there, there is someone whose greed, stupidity or cruelty inspired it.

Maybe we need to start naming the laws after those who inspired them.

The Adam Lanza Memorial Gun Control Law

The Bernie Madoff Accounting Reform Law

Marion Diabolito said...

The American contribution to the world is against this grain: our genuinely leading lights like Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain. Twain said if he new someone was coming to his house with the intention of doing him good he'd flee out the back door.

Speaking as a capitalism atheist/agnostic - meaning I don't believe in the true American religion of The Holy Market or any of its downstream irrational beliefs - I think these disputes and decisions are based on phantasies and chimeras, almost invariably. It's not an invocation of the Nanny State to restrain sellers - that construction would be laughed at by Founders like Jefferson or Franklin who understood, and said often, that property and capital are creations of the state, and so is incorporation, etc.

The only REAL invocation of what could be termed a nanny state, sort of, lately, was the tax penalty for not having health insurance. I think that was an obvious result of power politics and the outsized influence of the health insurance industry - an entirely parasitic, rent-seeking industry that should not even exist. A just and valid national health policy would advantage small businesses, probably cut costs in half, and require no coercion of anyone involved. Therefore no dispute exists between "freedom" and "results." The dispute is between the power of the rich and incorporated and connected and both the individual and public good. We shouldn't act as unpaid publicists for rich powerful sociopaths - that will skew everything we say. If the virgin sacrifices aren't doing anything, there's no point in hemming and hawing about the conflict between human life and pleasing the corn gods.

Also, as essentially a Rawlsian liberal, I don't approve of or accept tying liberalism to the actions of a Republican billionaire like Bloomberg.

Anonymous said...

A fundamental purpose of government in the 21st Century must be to stop harm to the global commons - atmosphere, land and ocean - by individuals and corporations.

Jeffrey Davis said...

There aren't a lot of instances of an individual's indifference to self interest or ignorance of it that don't involve harm to others. Suicide, yes? Then what?

EliRabett said...

On the contrary Russell, persecuting smokers saves Eli a hell of a lot on dry cleaning bills and his health insurance.

Russell Seitz said...

The view that " freedom ends at the bunny's ears" has already been lopped by California traffic cops !

Russell Seitz said...

How to dry clean a single professorial rabbit who completely controlls the world sounds like a two pipe problem , but on inspection Eli saves a fortune in taxes because smokers expire so promptly without dragging out their fiscal drain on Social Security .

David B. Benson said...

Nanny Eli --- Very near the top of Rabett Run, on the left side, are indicators of the latest 5 comments. Now that the Rabett Hole is populated by the babblers the more valuable comments are soon crowded off this list.

Is it possible for the Rabett Hole contributions to not appear on the list?

EliRabett said...

You get to blog with the blogger you got. Sadly no.

Steve Bloom said...

Apparently I was too subtle: It's Mill, not Mills. RTFW.

Anonymous said...


Probably not.

Smokers do tend to suffer longish periods of poor health.....and then there is the cost of premature deaths, ie lost productive working years.

Anonymous Etc

EliRabett said...

What and expose Eli to censure by the auditors by correcting stuff?

Steve Bloom said...

Good point.

But let me take this opportunity to mention my favorite such bugaboo of the last week or so, to be found on the ToC page of Nature Climate Change:

"& + et al."

Good times for nitpickers.

Anonymous said...

"Nanny knows best"

There is just one "minor issue": the nanny (Nanny McFee) has a split personality (and double standard): one for the spoiled, rich Ivy League (forgive the redundancy) crowd at the top who had (and continue to have) everything handed to them on a silver platter and one for the poor saps at the bottom who got handed the short end of the stick through no fault of their own and continue to get the shaft time and again (repeatedly).

Nanny McFee (who is actually employed by the former) gives out trillion dollar bailouts to the "persons" (including corporations) at the top like they were Halloween candy while refusing the ones at the bottom the bare minimum (a roof over their heads in many cases)

And when it comes to "justice"
Nanny McFee enforces the rules for those at the bottom with an iron fist (sending them to jail for years for possession of small quantities of drugs and other victim-less crimes) while letting the ones at the top do whatever the hell they please (letting them off the hook for bilking retirement fund investors and others out of billions, laundering tens of billions for drug cartels and even torture and murder ) -- as long as they have paid the required "fee" (campaign contribution), that is.*

*Nanny McFee is nonpartisan.

Robert Grumbine said...

Going to a different classic:
_No Man Is an Island_, John Donne