Sunday, July 12, 2009

Statist Paternalism

Amit Ghate points to this description of paternalism written by Tocqueville in the 1830's in this Mark Steye editorial. Here is what Amit had to say about this quote,"I've never seen a more apt and eloquent characterization, and I particularly like how he differentiates what a father does from what a "paternal" state does." Here's the quote:

Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle. It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood … it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in their principal affairs…

The sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform—through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way… it does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting on one's own … it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way: it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
The sovereign "extends it's arm" with varying degrees. I have written a bit about the government holding a big stick in its extended arm, which is used liberally in India. So in a lot of countries, even the softening and bending would be a welcome relief. North Korea is another (extreme) example that comes to mind where one can't imagine anybody existing with their wills intact. The level of tyranny is mind boggling — the whole country is like a big concentration camp. Even more mind boggling is the indifference of the rest of the world. I guess most of the world is too busy trying not to get sucked into the same cesspool of totalitarianism. The response of the American government officially, is the suicidal policy of appeasement.

The "paternal state" has its origins in the monarchies founded in power, where the people are treated as the children of the king. We still hear about England's Queen mother — mother of the peasant masses is what it implies. Coming back to U.S., check this Paul Heish article in the Capitalism Magazine about King Obama's regulatory chief 's belief in libertarian paternalism:

The basic premise of libertarian paternalism is that the government should use its power to “nudge” people into acting in their best interest, while leaving them the choice to “opt out.” If the government decides that saving money is good, it would automatically divert a percentage of your paycheck into a savings account in your name unless you explicitly declined. Supporters claim that this preserves freedom because government is only changing the default, while leaving individuals the final choice. It is merely a gentle “nudge,” not a hard push.

However, nudging represents an assault on freedom, because it undermines man’s basic tool of survival — his mind. By creating a default, libertarian paternalism in essence says, “Don’t worry — we’ll do your thinking for you.” Sunstein’s book explicitly compares Americans to a bunch of Homer Simpsons in need of such guidance. If Americans surrender their minds to the government, they become easy prey for demagogues and dictators.
Paul goes on to say that,"every child knows that if you let a schoolyard bully get away with one seemingly harmless “nudge,” he will then escalate into shoving, then punching, then regular beatings." India is one perfect (or should I say horrible) example of that gentle Gandhi-Nehruvian socialist nudge escalating into a bone crunching beating of Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi's emergency in 1977.

So is there no solution to this problem of overwhelming suffocation and oppression perpetuated by a group of people (government) on rest of us? Is it inevitable that the power corrupts and rest of us have to shrug, suffer, and swallow the bitter pill? No, we don't have to. Ayn Rand defined the nature of the government. She said that men can derive enormous benefits from dealing with one another but only on certain conditions.
The Nature of Government:

If men are to live together in a peaceful, productive, rational society and deal with one another to mutual benefit, they must accept the basic social principle without which no moral or civilized society is possible: the principle of individual rights.

To recognize individual rights means to recognize and accept the conditions required by man’s nature for his proper survival.

Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment.

The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships—thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.

(December 1963)

“The Nature of Government,” from The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand.

Read more about Ayn Rand’s Philosophy.