Years ago I had an argument with my mother-in-law, who is a classic Massachusetts liberal (by the way, we get along fine -- I have no tolerance for the notion that one can't be friends with someone who has a different set of politics). The argument was very clarifying for me and centered around the notion of coercion.
I can't entirely remember what the argument was about, but I think it was over government-mandated retirement programs. Should the government be forcing one to save, and if so, should the government do the investment of those savings (ie as they do in Social Security) even if this means substantially lower returns on investment?
The interesting part was we both used the word "arrogant." I said it was arrogant for a few people in government to assume they could make better decisions for individuals. She said it was arrogant for me to assume that all those individuals out there had the same training and capability that I had to be able to make good decisions for themselves.
And at the end of the day, that is essentially the two sides of the argument over government paternalism boiled down to its core. I thought coercion was immoral, she thought letting unprepared people make sub-optimal decisions for themselves when other people know better is immoral. As with most of my one on one arguments I have with people, I left it at that. When I argue face to face with real people, I have long ago given up trying to change their minds and generally settle for being clear where our premises diverge.
I am reminded of all this reading Bruce McQuain's take on Sarah Conly's most recent attempt to justify coercive paternalism (the latter is not an unfair title I have saddled her with -- it's from her last book). Reading this I had a couple of other specific thoughts
- I am amazed how much Conly and folks like her can write this stuff without addressing the fundamental contradiction at its core -- if we are so bad making decisions for ourselves, why do we think the same human beings suddenly become good at it when they join government? She would argue, I guess, that there are a subset of super-humans who are able to do what most of us can't, but how in a democracy do we thinking-impaired people know to vote for one of the supermen? Or if you throw our democracy, what system has ever existed that selected for leaders who make good decisions for the peasants vs., say, selected for people who were good generals.
- Is there any difference between Conly's coercive paternalism and Kipling's white man's burden? Other than the fact that the supermen and the mass of sub-optimizing schlubs are not differentiated by race? It's fascinating to see Progressives who are traditionally energized by hatred of colonialism rejuvinating one of imperialism's core philosophical justifications.