Sunday, 17 June 2012

Paternalist visions

Will Wilkinson and a colleague at The Economist have been sparring over paternalism. Where M.S., Wilkinson's colleague, argues paternalistic policy is an acceptable democratic way of getting towards desirable social goals, Wilkinson reminds us that a liberal democracy tries to leave a lot of decisions about the good to the individual.
Notice that we may convert any paternalistic argument into a benignly "democratic" argument simply by asserting that the intended subject of the proposed law is the character of society as a whole. Well, do we want a society in which the influence of heretics is left wholly unchecked, threatening public spiritual health? Torquemada didn't. The Taliban doesn't! Suppose we concede, just for the sake of argument, that this sort of public-spiritedness isn't paternalistic. Is it better than paternalism? It may be democratic. But is it liberal?

Liberal democracy is liberal in the first instance because it removes the protection of basic rights from the domain of collective deliberation. Do we want to be the kind of society that allows people to worship any way they like? That allows poor people to vote? That lets folks say sexy things, communist things, impertinent things, stupid things, Thomas Friedman things. Yes, yes, and mostly yes. Indeed, we think this stuff is so important, we mostly agree it ought to be illegal to put it up for a vote! My colleague suggests that there's something downright anti-social in making a principled argument against limiting the scope of peaceful individual choice. But I love society. Especially liberal ones.
The liberal society allows the existence of a personal sphere that's outside of the political sphere; I really like bright line rules keeping the two separate.

But I share Wilkinson's concerns about "Thomas Friedman things".

Brian Wansink and David Just, two of the academics on whose work Bloomberg leaned when pushing his ban on big soda cups, warn that their work really can't justify Bloomberg's ban; people forced to consume less than they'd like tend to compensate on other margins. Canada's Dan Gardner disagrees, suggesting changes in social norms coming from the changed cup size can, in the longer term, change consumption:

It wasn’t so long ago, remember, that no one expected to be able to buy 64-ounce soft drinks. Or even conceived of such a thing. If “mega jugs” were to go the way of leaded gasoline, the banning of which was also fought and resented, they would some day be forgotten. Like leaded gasoline.
It's an empirical question whether the ban winds up affecting anything. But there's a categorical difference between bans on leaded gasoline and bans on large soft drinks. Leaded gasoline increases concentrations of environmental lead and imposes harms on others; bigger drinks at the cinema might make a bigger mess if spilled on a non-drinker but otherwise only really affect the drinker.

If the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, why does it get a seat beside me in the theatre?

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