Wednesday, April 03, 2013
paternalist" Cass Sunstein reviews Sarah Conly's Against Autonomy: Justifying
Coercive Paternalism, in the New York Review of Books (HT: reader Snedcat). There are
many, many things wrong in this piece, but one of the things that struck me the
most was how trivially Sunstein seems to regard personal choice, and why he
does so. (He discounts as "frustration" the way individuals rightly react to the government trampling their freedom, for example.)
Soon after the outset of his article, Sunstein proposes that "a significant strand in American culture appears to endorse" the central argument of John Stewart Mill's On Liberty, which he summarizes as follows:
Mill offered a number of independent justifications for his famous harm principle, but one of his most important claims is that individuals are in the best position to know what is good for them. In Mill's view, the problem with outsiders, including government officials, is that they lack the necessary information. Mill insists that the individual "is the person most interested in his own well-being," and the "ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else."Americans would be wrong to argue for individual rights based on this, but let's run with it, anyway.
Let's assume that the individual is in the best position to know what is best for him and is most interested in his own well-being. (This is not always the case, and not simply due to ignorance and error. Evasion of what is best at any level can cause an individual to make poor choices.) Even in such a case, a relative lack of information by outsiders is hardly the only reason the government has no business dictating to people what they should do, even in the form of the velvet-gloved fist of a "choice architecture".
That government officials can force people to harm themselves due to bad information and their own cogitive errors is part of why preventive law and government regulations are a bad thing, and Sunstein readily concedes that risk. (He does downplay it, however.) Nevertheless, as I noted in the case of individuals, evasion, which Ayn Rand rightly called man's "basic vice", is also something government officials, as individuals, are perfectly capable of. Voters, too, and on a massive scale. Read on.
Sunstein's failure to consider normative arguments (including, by the way, how anyone (acting on his own behalf or as some sort of public guardian) is to determine what is good or for whom) causes him to blatantly ignore something that was obvious to America's founders: the prospect of tyranny. When individuals concede their autonomy to a government -- the sole social institution with the legal power to force them to do things -- they don't just open themselves up to being made to abide by mere mistakes by their "guardians" (which would be bad enough); they open themselves up to being forced to live with the consequences of whatever evil that a majority of voters or officials in the government feel they can get away with.
Ayn Rand put all this very succinctly when she summarized MIll's philosophy of Utilitarianism (and warned us against it) as follows:
"The greatest good for the greatest number" is one of the most vicious slogans ever foisted on humanity.Although we are not discussing the establishment of concentration camps in America, the above quote shows us how tyranny slips in, and not just if some obviously evil faction were to come to power: It also explains some interesting "questions" Sunstein raises near the end of his review. Notably, we see Conly arguing against banning the use of food stamps for the purchase of soft drinks, and yet also arguing that cigarettes should be banned. Do notice further that neither Sunstein nor Conly ask about the propriety of harming some people (by taking their money) to allegedly help others (via the food stamps). We aren't enslaving anyone or committing genocide, but we are already being harmed by the immoral actions the government is making us do.
This slogan has no concrete, specific meaning. There is no way to interpret it benevolently, but a great many ways in which it can be used to justify the most vicious actions.
What is the definition of "the good" in this slogan? None, except: whatever is good for the greatest number. Who, in any particular issue, decides what is good for the greatest number? Why, the greatest number.
If you consider this moral, you would have to approve of the following examples, which are exact applications of this slogan in practice: fifty-one percent of humanity enslaving the other forty-nine; nine hungry cannibals eating the tenth one; a lynching mob murdering a man whom they consider dangerous to the community.
There were seventy million Germans in Germany and six hundred thousand Jews. The greatest number (the Germans) supported the Nazi government which told them that their greatest good would be served by exterminating the smaller number (the Jews) and grabbing their property. This was the horror achieved in practice by a vicious slogan accepted in theory.
But, you might say, the majority in all these examples did not achieve any real good for itself either? No. It didn't. Because "the good" is not determined by counting numbers and is not achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. [bold added]
Sure, I can and do make mistakes, but do I want even more of this? Absolutely not. I'd rather remain free to do something Sunstein and Conly seem to assume I can't: learn from my mistakes and those of others.