The Edmond Sun

February 22, 2013

A paternalistic government leads us down wrong path

Mike Hinkle
Special to The Sun

EDMOND — An article in the March 7 issue of The New York Review of Books has me remembering a story about Confucius. According to legend, the great Chinese philosopher/teacher was traveling through a remote area with a group of students. At an out-of-the-way village, they came upon an old woman sitting by a grave grieving.

When Confucius inquired about her troubles, she said this was the grave of her only son who was killed by a tiger. The same predator had killed her husband and her husband’s father. “Why do you live in such a savage place?” “Because we may contend with vicious tigers, but the rulers leave us in peace.” Hearing this, Confucius turned to his followers: “This is an important lesson. Suffering from oppressive government is a worse fate than confronting savage tigers.”

Cass Sunstein, until recently President Obama’s administrator of the Office on Information and Regulatory Affairs, reviewed a book called “Against Autonomy” by Sarah Conley, assistant professor of philosophy at Bowdoin College. The title of Sunstein’s review is “For Your Own Good.”

Before we consider Professor Conley’s book, however, a word about Sunstein. He is a prolific and respected writer and a proponent of a theory called “libertarian paternalism,” which holds that government should, under certain circumstances, constrict individual choices when people are unlikely to make the correct choices for themselves. Sunstein believes the president, not the federal courts, should interpret the meaning of federal statute. He believes we should “celebrate tax day” because “In what sense is the money in our pockets and bank accounts fully ours?”

He urges a ban on government-sanctioned marriage. “Under our proposal, the word marriage would no longer appear in any laws and marriage licenses would no longer be offered or recognized by any level of government.”

Sunstein’s notions about individual freedom, government checks and balances and the institution of marriage, right or wrong, depart considerably from traditional American attitudes on these subjects.

I point this out because Sunstein seems to be largely in agreement with the main thesis of Professor Conley’s book: We’re too fat, too much in debt and save too little for the future. Therefore government coercion should not be ruled out in these areas. “… Autonomy is not valuable enough to offset what we lose by leaving people to their autonomous choices.” According to Sunstein and Conley, here are some reasons “the governed” are in need of greater involvement by paternalistic government.

According to these authors, average people have a “present bias” meaning they aren’t prone to weigh long-term benefits in connection with decision-making. They are also prone to “heuristic” thinking, meaning they take unreliable shortcuts in evaluating probabilities. “If people have recently suffered damage from a hurricane — they might well overestimate the risk. If they can recall few or no examples, they might well underestimate risk.” Furthermore “… most people are unrealistically optimistic in the sense that their own predictions about their behavior and their prospects are skewed in the optimistic direction.” Bottom line: “… outsiders may be in a much better position to know the probabilities than the people who are making choices themselves.”

Presumably, a junta of scientists, sociologists, social planners, politicians and bureaucrats taking account of the weaknesses of common thinking and the important social goals which, in the opinion of the junta, are better for us all, should coercively trump inconvenient individual choices

These notions, sincere as they may be, would be laughable if they weren’t so dangerous. If history teaches us anything about government, it’s this: Government is never satisfied. It never has enough power, money, information or predictable obedience. Every step we take in the direction of increased government ability to coercively limit our choices is a prelude to the next step and the next. And government abhors loosening its grip once it gets its regulatory fingers around the individual throat.

If thinkers like Sunstein and Conley carry the day, we’ll all end up like zoo animals. All our housing will be provided. Our health care will be provided. Our diets will be carefully monitored. All we lose is the freedom to make choices for ourselves. Personally, I prefer that rulers leave us alone and let us figure out how we choose to contend with wild tigers.

And by the way, Professor Conley’s next book is “One: Do We Have the Right to Have More Children?” In which she states “…the right to have a family doesn’t entail the right to have as many children as you want.” Presumably that choice too should be left to the government. Well, I dunno. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.

MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.