Arrogance and Coercion

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

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  • Stan

    I always see the moral/immoral, prepared/unprepared type of arguments as missing the point. Don't people have the right to do with their own money as they please? If not, you have to answer a lot of other questions, including when and where to draw the line and who draws it. That's arrogance imo.

  • SamWah

    "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."
    I presume you did not assume that. But that's the horse she chose to ride.

  • MingoV

    Part of the reason why so many adults make poor decisions is that for generations society has treated them like six-year-olds. How can anyone get good at taking responsibility and making decisions without practice? A related problem is paternalism. Little kids need and usually want protective parents. They should outgrow that need, but helicopter parents and school staff cause many kids to retain their desire for parent-like figures such as a nanny-state government.

    Another childlike behavior widely observed in adults is magical thinking. Magical thinking is believing in something without any evidence. For example, "I can have a luxurious retirement without putting a dime in an IRA." Or, "I don't need health insurance; I can get natural medicines from GNC if I get sick."

    I have no clue how to reverse the trend toward irresponsibility, lifelong desire for parent-figures, and magical thinking. Abolishing public schools would be a good start.

  • http://devilish-details.blogspot.com/ mesaeconoguy

    “…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”

    Sorry Coyote, not with you on this one.

    It’s becoming increasingly evident daily that leftists have not only fragmented the country, but that they intend to do so even more, and are largely unaware of their actions, most of them coercive.

    While there certainly are “offenders” on both sides of the left/right spectrum, it is the left which has not only won the argument (temporarily, pyrrhic), but has also succeeded in distorting the Constitution and the language, to achieve political gains which has deeply divided the country the most since the Civil War.

    There is enormous lack of awareness on the part of leftists how far left the country has drifted. This is due mostly to the fact that leftists have very high opinion-to-knowledge ratios, but tend to see their often times minority beliefs reflected in and validated by “mainstream” media outlets (making them very low information/low
    awareness automatons). Most leftists are highly or completely uninformed about the topics/political causes they
    advocate, especially economics (e.g. Larry).

    Yes, there are many on the right who advocate restrictive policies, but in the core freedoms of the country - especially economics and economic liberty - they pose far less of a threat.

    Obamascare is the flagship example of a coercive and dangerous policy which will destroy the country. It was formulated in secret and passed by leftists in the dead of night "for the good of the nation."

    This is mostly a result of leftist arrogance driving the country off the cliff.

  • Ron H.

    That should be a resounding yes, but those who are enlightened and who know what is best for all of us will argue that people must to be forced to act in their own best interest or else the rest of us will be forced to pay for their mistakes later.

  • Ron H.

    A resounding yes that people should have the right to do with their own money as they please, that is.

  • Eris Guy

    "Is there any difference between Conly's coercive paternalism and Kipling's white man's burden? “

    No. And Conly and her fans should and will undertake whatever coercion and war is necessary to end whatever their equivalent of wife-burning, slavery, and caste systems from which the terrible white man rid some countries. There’s nothing like a bunch of paternalistic moralizers to attack slavery, Jim Crow, Hindu and Japanese castes, medieval superstition, or whatever the cause-of-the-week is (soda cups, in NYC, I hear).

  • marque2

    Didn't Steve Jobs use magical thinking. Not sire on all the details but apparently he tried to cure his cancer with new age medicine - and let it get so out of hand conventional medicine could no longer help. And this guy was a billionaire with full medical to boot.

  • marque2

    Anyway I agree with the notion that people are being treated like children and being dumbed down.

  • bigmaq1980

    I concur with many of your observations mesaeconguy.

    However, from personal encounters it seems we can split the left up between those who are innocently ignorant (i.e. don't seem to know or understand the philosophy/economics/history of various issues but seem to derive their position on some emotional basis), willfully ignorant (i.e. usually does not discuss "politics" much, avoids related media, values "entertainment" news highly, will usually looking for what they get out of a position, but cannot articulate the rationale), idealistic, and populist.

    The populist group are the most dangerous, as they are usually in a power position or associated with a power position of one sort or another, looking to bolster their or their group's position. This group includes much of the MSM, many in academia (e.g. incl crossovers like Krugman), politicians, most lobbyists/political consultants, most bureaucrats, most "community organizers", etc.

    The only ones we can convince are the innocently ignorant, and perhaps a few of the "casually" idealistic (they land lower on the "fervor" scale) as they may have come to their conclusions "innocently".

    For the sake of wanting / needing to convince these people for our long term good, I think we do need to treat them with respect and can even be friends or "relatives" to them.

    For those we do not yet know, we can start from a position of respect. For the rest, we should consider being respectful, as we should expect the same treatment in discourse, but realize that we do so more for the audience we want to convince.

  • http://devilish-details.blogspot.com/ mesaeconoguy

    Mostly agreed.

    Ignorance, whether willful or otherwise, isn’t an excuse. History screams with examples of
    dangerous leftist ideas and implementations, and the seminal lesson of the 20th century – the failure of collectivism – is completely lost on these people. Enabling its repetition either via active participation or passive acceptance is equally repulsive.

    At some point, you have to cut bait. We are past that point, but that doesn’t mean we can’t welcome back those who realize the error of their ways.

  • bigmaq1980

    Right...no excuse (really) and history is full of such lessons...however, that same history demonstrates that without sensible people actively convincing the others (i.e. cutting bait) to form a majority, we will get caught up in the repeat of that history - nobody is left unscathed, unless they happen to be at the top of the pyramid of power, and even then, they are not immune to treachery.

    There will always be a reason (or several) to find to cut bait, and any/every time will always look like the time that is "past the point".

    Discussing it and trying to convince people who are "convincable" is neither morally enabling repetition nor passive acceptance.

    Not sure what one does if they won't engage in discussion in a manner that trys to convince, if they are not passively accepting things.

    We can only work with the world we are given, to shape it as best we can for us and our children.

  • Matthew Walker

    " how in a democracy do we thinking-impaired people know to vote for one of the supermen?"

    We don't. But fortunately, progressives are now in power, so we don't have to worry about that problem any more. Remember when progressives saw government as a threat, liberty as a fundamental necessity, and free exchange of ideas as indispensible? Remember when dissent was patriotic? That was when the wrong people were in charge.
    The current answer to how we elect the right people is the right people plan to hang on to power, and from the looks of it, they won't even have to rig any elections to do it.

  • jdgalt

    I see another parallel -- fascism, as Mussolini originally defined the term (in which a committee of supposedly enlightened geniuses chose a dictator who would then impose their advice on us "for our own good").

    Hayek pointed out the major fallacy here -- the fact that the information needed to run that kind of government well is dispersed among the population and no one person or small group can possibly know most of it.

    @bigmaq1980: When someone advocates nanny-statism, he has effectively just said to each one of us, "I don't consider you to be a competent adult human being." If he then has the nerve to complain that I'm disrespecting him, all I can say is, "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad."

  • Reformed Republican

    I thought coercion was immoral, she thought letting unprepared people make sub-optimal decisions for themselves when other people know better is immoral.
    Which makes it a choice between letting some unprepared people make sub-optimal decisions, or forcing prepared people into sub-optimal options, since money paid into Social Security cannot be invested by the individual.