[Hat tip: Ace.]
The liberal agenda continues apace, in ways that are especially chilling but not at all surprising.
I’m referring to Sarah Conly’s new book entitled Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, which purports to use social science research to undo none other than John Stuart Mill. Here is Cass Sunstein, reviewing Conly’s work in the NY Review of Books:
Mill offered a number of independent justifications for his famous harm principle* [see note at end of post], 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.”
When society seeks to overrule the individual’s judgment, Mill wrote, it does so on the basis of “general presumptions,” and these “may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases.” If the goal is to ensure that people’s lives go well, Mill contends that the best solution is for public officials to allow people to find their own path. Here, then, is an enduring argument, instrumental in character, on behalf of free markets and free choice in countless situations, including those in which human beings choose to run risks that may not turn out so well.
Mill’s claim has a great deal of intuitive appeal. But is it right? That is largely an empirical question, and it cannot be adequately answered by introspection and intuition. In recent decades, some of the most important research in social science, coming from psychologists and behavioral economists, has been trying to answer it. That research is having a significant influence on public officials throughout the world. Many believe that behavioral findings are cutting away at some of the foundations of Mill’s harm principle, because they show that people make a lot of mistakes, and that those mistakes can prove extremely damaging.
Okay, let me get this straight: social science research as a guide to ceding to the state some of our liberties? It would be funny if it weren’t so very sad and so very very dangerous (although I imagine that if it weren’t social science research as the justification, they’d find something else). I studied social science research at the graduate level, and there are precious few studies through which you can’t poke holes the size of a Mack truck. And I worked in the field, too, doing such research. Let’s just summarize by saying the enterprise is deeply flawed, and some of this is inherent in the problems of doing research on human beings.
But that’s not even the biggest issue, although it’s one I doubt Conly (who is a professor of philosophy at Bowdoin) tackles. Let’s look more closely at one part of Mill’s argument [emphasis mine]:
When society seeks to overrule the individual’s judgment, Mill wrote, it does so on the basis of “general presumptions,” and these “may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases.”
So Mill has actually covered the bases here. Social science research indeed “may be altogether wrong,” (in fact, very often is). And social science research—”even if right,” even if impeccably done and even if the results are convincing and valid—can tell us nothing whatsoever about individuals. At best, it only describes an aggregate population.
But perhaps that’s the point for people such as Conly. They are interested in the collective—the hive, not the individual. And invariably, of course, they end up hurting the hive as well as the individual, in their attempts at “helping” us all.
I’ve not read the book, of course. But it does not sound as though Conly has any sense of the value of an intangible such as autonomy, although she purports to deal with that issue. Sunstein writes:
[Conly asserts] that autonomy is “not valuable enough to offset what we lose by leaving people to their own autonomous choices.” Conly is aware that people often prefer to choose freely and may be exceedingly frustrated if government overrides their choices. If a paternalistic intervention would cause frustration, it is imposing a cost, and that cost must count in the overall calculus. But Conly insists that people’s frustration is merely one consideration among many. If a paternalistic intervention can prevent long-term harm—for example, by eliminating risks of premature death—it might well be justified even if people are keenly frustrated by it.
(By the way, I’m not sure why the word “paternalistic” keeps being used here, except that it’s part of Conly’s title. There’s a reason we call it the “nanny state” and not the “pappy state.”]
Does Conly really think that because (in her words), “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future,” we should surrender our liberty to a benevolent government that will always act in our best interests? Does she know anything whatsoever about government and power? As is so often the case, I’m not sure whether Conly is a fool or a knave, or both. I vote for both.
So please save the lectures, Professor Conly, and get your oh-so-helping hands out of my life. I’m not your little social science experiment. I have a more polite message for Conly as well: in the end, there are intangibles that liberty and autonomy afford us. Those things cannot be measured or quantified, but they are pearls of great price.
And one more thing—Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor would be proud of you.
[*Mill’s “harm principle” goes as follows:
…[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant. ]