Category Archive 'Sarah O. Conly'

26 Mar 2013

Cheering For the Nanny State

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Bowdoin’s aspiring Platonic Guardian Sara O. Conly recently published a great big book arguing in favor of Nanny State paternalism over Liberty. Not surprisingly, we now find her defending Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban in the New York Times.

Giving up a little liberty is something we agree to when we agree to live in a democratic society that is governed by laws.

The freedom to buy a really large soda, all in one cup, is something we stand to lose here. For most people, given their desire for health, that results in a net gain. For some people, yes, it’s an absolute loss. It’s just not much of a loss.

Of course, what people fear is that this is just the beginning: today it’s soda, tomorrow it’s the guy standing behind you making you eat your broccoli, floss your teeth, and watch “PBS NewsHour” every day. What this ignores is that successful paternalistic laws are done on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis: if it’s too painful, it’s not a good law. Making these analyses is something the government has the resources to do, just as now it sets automobile construction standards while considering both the need for affordability and the desire for safety.

Do we care so much about our health that we want to be forced to go to aerobics every day and give up all meat, sugar and salt? No. But in this case, it’s some extra soda. Banning a law on the grounds that it might lead to worse laws would mean we could have no laws whatsoever.

In the old days we used to blame people for acting imprudently, and say that since their bad choices were their own fault, they deserved to suffer the consequences. Now we see that these errors aren’t a function of bad character, but of our shared cognitive inheritance. The proper reaction is not blame, but an impulse to help one another.

That’s what the government is supposed to do, help us get where we want to go. It’s not always worth it to intervene, but sometimes, where the costs are small and the benefit is large, it is. That’s why we have prescriptions for medicine. And that’s why, as irritating as it may initially feel, the soda regulation is a good idea. It’s hard to give up the idea of ourselves as completely rational. We feel as if we lose some dignity. But that’s the way it is, and there’s no dignity in clinging to an illusion.

La Conly’s argument (in both her book and this editorial) really boils down to the claim (based on behaviorist social science, no less) that people are incompetent, make bad choices, and have difficulty recognizing their own best interests. Therefore, Conly says these other people over here, the ones who attended Princeton, who have important official titles and positions, know better what is good for everyone; and you ordinary people over there, you dimbulbs and dufi, should be willing to surrender (just a little) liberty here and some other liberty there, when those wiser and better, and more prestigiously and officially placed, than you decide that it is time to lay down the law and tell you what to do, for your own good.

Speaking philosophically, I went to Yale (which outranks Princeton all day long), so I get to point out to Professor Conly that in reality, the behaviorist social sciences prove that our Mandarins, politicians, and experts are just as fallibly human as everyone else, and are also subject to errors produced by biases toward short-term satisfaction and unrealistic optimism, particularly –in their case– optimism about their own capacities, objectivity, and motivations. Platonic Guardians tend to think that they are being disinterested and only trying to maximize everyone’s well being, while all the while they are busily gathering greater powers and control over the lives and fortunes of others to themselves. The best political philosophers are those, like Jefferson and Madison, who recognize the fact that no one enjoys the kind of superiority of perspective which entitles him or her to prescribe to someone else what he ought to do inside his own private sphere of liberty.

21 Feb 2013

The Next Big Leftist Book

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Sarah O. Conly kayaks when she isn’t busy planning to run your life.

Sarah Conly recently had a full-year sabbatical, which she spent vacationing at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and in Oaxaca, Mexico. When not engaged in tourism or dining out, Ms. Conly busied herself with writing the next big leftist book.

Her opus, titled Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism is intended to reject explicitly the famous thesis of John Stewart Mills’ On Liberty:

That the 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 moral, is not a sufficient warrant . . . Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Sarah Conly went to Princeton, did her graduate work at Cornell, and teaches Philosophy at Bowdoin. Professor Conly consequently believes that she knows better than you do. She believes that your personal freedom, your right to make your own decisions in areas affecting only yourself is “overrated.” The notion that you are entitled to liberty and autonomy, you see, is based, according to Ms. Conly on grossly exaggerated estimates of your personal competence and rationality.

Ms. Conly can prove that you are an idiot using evidence from psychology and behavioral economics which she concludes demonstrates that most of you out there –the people who don’t get fellowships to St. Andrews or write books while vacationing in Oaxaca– are clueless dolts afflicted with “present bias” and unrealistic optimism. There you have it. Social science proves that you are unworthy and unfit, and that you need the guidance of superior and more enlightened beings, like Sarah O. Conly, to keep you from playing with matches or cutting yourself with sharp objects.

In the Conlyian state, application of coercive force by government is not only desirable, but obligatory, anytime it can be established by the sophistry, calculations, or economic analysis of people like herself that the benefits justify the costs.

How is coercive paternalistic intervention justified? Conly offers four supposed tests: (1) the personal liberty being banned must be genuinely destructive of people’s self-defined long-term ends. (2) The coercive measures must be successful. (3) Their benefits must exceed their costs. (4) The coercive measures under contemplation must be more effective than non-coercive alternatives.

I’m working from Cass Sunstein’s New York Review of Books review, and I do not have Professor Conly’s actual text on-hand. (I’m certainly not going to pay $95 for it either.) But, even without her complete argument in view, it seems obvious to me that her criteria are intrinsically open-ended.

In the case of Number 1, the proposed coercer will always have to usurp the privilege of reading the coercees’ minds and defining those long-term ends. In reality, long-term ends vary, some people would perversely reject long-term ends in favor of short-term ends, and long-term ends may, sometimes, conflict. I think I know that Professor Conly would be disposed, for example, to ban private gun ownership… for all our own good. But owning lots of guns is, in my view, very decidedly part of my long-term ends, and I would reject Professor Conly’s perspective that private ownership of guns is so dangerous that it must inevitably be inimical to my long-term goals of personal survival and public safety. She and I are bound to disagree on item one.

In the case of 2, libertarians like myself would argue that most forms of paternalistic coercion will inevitably prove unsuccessful. Look at Alcohol Prohibition. Look at Drug Prohibition. Look at Immigration Prohibition.

With regard to Number 3, we are bound again to disagree on costs, because it is perfectly obvious that some of us consider the violation of personal autonomy, the elimination of liberties, and coercion generally to represent prohibitive costs per se.

In the case of Number 4, coercion is inevitably always going to be more effective than persuasion. If the Gestapo practices a firm policy of taking anyone caught smoking out, standing him up against a wall, and shooting him, it will definitely do a more effective job of discouraging smoking than any number of public service advertisements about health hazards.

Frankly, philosophically speaking, I think Profesor Conly’s four criteria deserve to fall directly into the departmental waste container labeled: “meaningless, trivial, or simply false.”

I have an equally negative view of her use of “social science” studies, aka bullsh*t, to refute John Stuart Mill. Anybody can prove anything with social science studies.

Professor Conly’s philosophy features also the notable defect that behavioral economics and psychology apply to you and me, the intended victims of her paternalist regime, but not to her and the other Platonic Guardians drafting the regulations.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? If man in general is too incompetent and irrational to manage his own life, he is certainly also too incompentent and irrational, too biased and selfish in perspective, too vainglorious and self-important to dictate to others how to live.

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