As a capitalist and believer in individual rights, one of the things I notice a lot today is just how many people do not trust individual decision-making. Now, I do not mean that they criticize other people's decisions or disagree with them -- in a free society, you can disagree with anybody about anything. I mean that they distrust other people's free, private decision-making so much that they want the government to intervene.
Interestingly, most people don't think of themselves as advocating government interference with people's private decisions. However, if you ask them the right questions, you will find that they tend to fall into one of several categories that all want the government to intervene in individual decision-making in some way: nannies, moralists, technocrats, and progressive/socialists. Though the categories tend to overlap, they are useful in thinking about some of the reasons people want to call in the government to take over parts of people's lives.
By the way, before I get started, just to avoid straw-man arguments like "well, you just want 12-year-olds to have sex with dogs", there are three philosophical limitations that apply to decisions made by individuals or between individuals:
- The decisions or agreements are made without fraud or physical coersion
- The decisions are made by adults (the very definition of adulthood is the legal ability to make decisions for oneself)
- Decisions and areements don't violate the constitutional rights of others
That being said, here are examples of the government interventionism of nannies, moralists, technocrats, and progressive/socialists.
Nannies see government (and increasingly, the courts via class-actions and the tort system) as super-mom. They believe the government's job is to protect people mainly from their own bad decision-making. Ironically, they are in many cases making decision-making worse, by either explicitly or tacitly reducing people's sense of individual responsibility.
- Seat Belts and Helmets: Nannies love "for your own good" laws. They hate the fact that drivers and motorcycle riders make such poor decisions for themselves and want the government to take over. Recently, as they have met more resistance to "for your own good" legislation, nannies have worked on arguments to try to recast these decisions as hurting others, such as the "seat belts help drivers control the car better in accidents", but these are pretty uncompelling and clearly not the real motivation for nannies.
- Unhealthy Food: Having won the battle over seat belts and motorcycle helmets, nannies have moved on to other unhealthy habits that hurt no one but the individual themself. Interestingly, increasing monopolization of health care by the government may be giving nannies firmer ground to micro-manage individual health decisions on the basis that a person's bad decision-making increasingly hurts taxpayers as well as themselves.
Moralists hold strong beliefs, often inspired by religion, that certain kinds of individual behaviors are immoral. However, one can be profoundly moral without asking the government to police morality in others. Moralists disagree with this latter, desiring that the government act as God's instrument on Earth, punishing sinners even when their actions don't hurt anyone else. Like nanny's try to protect people's body from their own poor decision-making, moralists are trying to protect their soul:
- Narcotics: OK, no one really wants to defend drug abuse, but saving people from poor choices with narcotics is just not the government's job (and if it is the government's job, they sure are doing a poor job of it). The government gave up its short experiment with alcohol prohibition and I think they will have to do the same some day with most controlled substances. The number of people in jail for petty drug offenses is insane, not to mention to the number of violent crimes that are caused by the black market status of narcotics (even prim Ms. Martha Stewart has come around to this point of view). If people want to trash their own body, that should be their right, though in a free society no one will stop you from trying to talk them out of it.
- Sexual Practices: In the same way, it is difficult to justify how the government has any say in sexual decisions by two (or I guess more) people as long as those decisions are consensual. In particular, the government is only just now getting out of the business of regulating homosexual practices. Just to make sure I really make people mad, I'll bring up the example of prostitution. Why is consensual sex suddenly illegal if money changes hands? Or, even more bizarrely, why is illegal prostitution suddenly legal again if the sex act for money is filmed and that film is distributed and sold? Like with narcotics, many of the worst abuses associated with prostitution actually stem from its illegality.
- Media Excesses: Probably since the first caveman drew on a wall, there was someone complaining to the town elders that the drawing was too violent for kids and should be banned. There are always people who don't like what some artists choose to produce, and what some viewers choose to watch, and want the government to intervene. Its hopeless. There is no possible way to intervene in these decisions fairly. If you think broadcast TV is bad for kids, don't let them watch it (we don't in our house). If you can't stop them from watching it, get rid of the TV set.
For the last century or so, many in the elite of the western democracies have had a strong technocratic bent. They tend to look at capitalism and individualist societies as messy and chaotic. They strongly believe that there are a number of situations where individual decision-making sub-optimizes vs. what one smart person could do at the top of the system running things (see here and here, for much more detail on the top-down technocratic urge). Technocrats have at many times been strong admirers of both fascism and Soviet-style economic planning, at least, that is, until the bodies started piling up.
- Standards: Technocrats have always been disdainful of competing products and standards. They grind their teeth at the inefficiency of format wars such as Beta/VHS or Apple/IBM or cable/DSL or like we see currently for the next generation of DVD's. They greatly prefer government standard setting, such as has occurred with HDTV. While this can sound seductive, what the technocrat is really saying is "we don't trust you consumers to make the right standards choice, so we will make it for you" or possibly "you consumers will just get confused if you have too much choice so we will limit the choice for you". Doesn't sound so good that way, huh? By the way, it also doesn't usually work. Though the comparison is a bit apples and oranges, it is instructive to notice that the government managed HDTV format change, after decades of planning, had about a tenth or less of the market penetration that the chaotic all-private DVD standard has in the same households during the same period of time.
- Government Monopolies: Technocrats are also big fans of government-run or at least government-managed monopolies. The old Bell system and electric utilities are classic examples. The systems worked OK in delivering reliable, predictable service, but sucked, among other things, when it came to changing technologies. Technocrats wanted to carefully manage technology changes with lots of thought and avoiding false starts. Consumers want to decide for themselves, taking risks with new technologies, quickly reaping benefits, sometimes going down blind allies, but always making choices based on their own risk-reward-cost trade-offs, rather than those of the technocrat. Today, we are on our second or third generation of MP3 player - under governement control, we'd still be waiting for the standard to be issued.
- National Recovery Act (NRA): Though not exactly a recent example, the NRA was for FDR the centerpiece of his New Deal, and is perhaps the ultimate piece of technocratic regulation in this country's history. Many people don't realize how far down the road to technocratic fascist economics that FDR took us with the NRA, which he modeled on Mussolini's example in Italy.
- Prescription Drugs and Medical Devices: The FDA drug approval process is a great example of classic technocrat thinking. Instead of letting individuals work with their doctors to make risk reward trade-offs on using certain drugs, technocrats take over this decision and make a single risk-reward trade-off for the entire country. They study reams of data for years and years and make a decision whether a drug is effective enough given its cost and side effects that people should use it.
What if a person dying of cancer where all other treatments fail is willing to try a drug, even if it has a low probability of success? The technocrats of the FDA say "nope", you may think that is a good decision for you, but we are the experts and we know better and we are not going to let you make that decision. Unfortunately, they probably also are not going to send flowers to the funeral.
By the way, I wish women's groups like NOW would get their message straight on the sanctity of a woman's decision-making for her own body. Simultaneously on the NOW web site they are complaining that the government may deny them the right to choose to have an abortion, while at the same time complaining that the government is not denying women the right to choose to have breast implants.
OK, I saved best, or worst, for last. I think that the far left, calling themselves anything from progressives to socialists, have become the worst enemy the world faces today to free individual decision-making. The worst of them have dropped any pretense of trusting individuals with choice.
- Employment and Wages: If I was going to sell my old TV set on eBay, most people would not think to have the government tell me how much I should be willing to accept for the TV. For me, even $20 might be enough, if the TV was not being used and just taking up space in my house. Can you imagine government agents descending on me and saying - "I'm sorry, but people much smarter than you have decided that $20 is too little for you to accept for that TV. We would rather you get nothing than get too little."
Well, that is exactly what happens with labor. The government that does not tell me how much to sell my TV for does tell me that I can't sell my labor below a certain price. They would rather me not work at all than work for $4.50 an hour. The arrogance of this is startlingly clear in lesser developed countries.
Progressives do not like American factories appearing in third world countries, paying locals wages progressives feel are too low, and disrupting agrarian economies with which progressives were more comfortable. But these changes are all the sum of actions by individuals, so it is illustrative to think about what is going on in these countries at the individual level.
One morning, a rice farmer in southeast Asia might face a choice. He can continue a life of brutal, back-breaking labor from dawn to dusk for what is essentially subsistence earnings. He can continue to see a large number of his children die young from malnutrition and disease. He can continue a lifestyle so static, so devoid of opportunity for advancement, that it is nearly identical to the life led by his ancestors in the same spot a thousand years ago.
Or, he can go to the local Nike factory, work long hours (but certainly no longer than he worked in the field) for low pay (but certainly more than he was making subsistence farming) and take a shot at changing his life. And you know what, many men (and women) in his position choose the Nike factory. And progressives hate this. They distrust this choice. They distrust the change. And, at its heart, that is what opposition to globalization is all about - a deep seated conservatism that distrusts the decision-making of individuals and fears change, change that ironically might finally pull people out of untold generations of utter poverty. (update: good post in the Mises blog on Taco Bell and wages here)
- Advertising and Consumerism: I haven't had a chance to take on my fellow Princetonian Ralph Nader lately. Ralph Nader firmly believes that you as a consumer are a stupid, unreasoning, easily controlled and manipulated dupe. Nader and the consumer groups he has spawned oppose advertising and marketing at every turn, because the seem to believe that people walk away from ads like zombies from Night of the Living Dead, staggering into the local Best Buy to fulfill their programming by buying uncritically more consumer goods. Some even go further by arguing for high marginal tax rates to save us from these nasty consumer choices that just make us unhappy.
- Social Security: This is playing out right now. The argument is confused by issues of benefits cuts and taxes, etc, so I will simplify. Take two plans, both of which tax at the same rate and provide individuals with the same present value. Plan A allows individuals to make their own investment decisions with the money, including the choice to let the government invest it for them, while Plan B has the government continue to make fixed payouts in the future. Progressives today want B, even though individuals who want a plan B style system can still get it under A. Liberals and progressives do not think the average worker is capable of making their own investment decisions - I know, I have had this argument time and again with people.
- Education: Ditto from Social Security above, though this issue is often tinged with a subtle racism, an implication that poor, often black families who are the target of many school choice initiatives (because the schools they have now are generally so bad) can't handle or be trusted with choice. For most people, nothing is more fundamental, more important, and more personal than their children's education. No other decision carries so much weight, and is so fundamental to the dream of providing a better life for one's children.
Beyond just quality, though, is values and philosophy. It is impossible to educate kids in a values-neutral way. Statist parents object to too much positive material on the founding fathers and the Constitution. Religious parents object to secularized science and sex education. Free market parents object to enforced environmental activism and statist economics.
One reasons progressives oppose school choice is that the majority of school teachers are tilting toward a secular-statist point of view, and progressives treasure the opportunity to indoctrinate young minds (the code words for this in the debate are things like protecting the "shared experience" which sounds like indoctrination to me). The fact is that the "free thinkers" of the 1960's want all our kids to think alike.
That's probably enough, and is certainly sufficient to irritate just about everyone who reads this. It might be easy to assume that having said all of this, I am amoral. That is actually far from the case. I have a strong sense of right and wrong, of honor and dishonor. I spend time almost every day trying to get my kids to make smart decisions on a myriad of things, including sex and drugs. I think most broadcast TV today sucks for kids and we don't let our kids watch it.
However, I don't think it is the government's job to enforce morality on individuals when they make decisions that only affect themselves. And if you disagree, you better be dang careful that you have a majority on your side, because if the government is going to manage individual behaviors, there is a good chance they may not be the ones you want.
By the way, if you want more, the place to start is with Hayek, the godfather of individual choice. Reason has a roundup on Hayek here.