Sarah Conly, a philosophy professor at Bowdoin College, secured space in this morning's New York Times to defend Mayor Bloomberg's Big Gulp ban, essentially on utilitarian public health grounds (see yesterday's post on cigar regulation to see how we feel about that). Even though she is a philosophy professor, Conly is a utilitarian:
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.In other words, if some wonk decides the collective good of new regulation outweighs the total burden against some metric of the wonk's selection or invention -- we suspect even Conly would not support using "utiles" -- then, presto, we have a "successful paternalistic law."
Before we get to the philosophical objections, we cannot stop ourselves from stating the obvious practical problem: Conly's paternalism requires intelligent wonks and politicians who act in good faith. Even if Mayor Bloomberg is such a politician with many such wonks at his disposal, who among us actually believes that the typical American politician acts either competently or in good faith more often than occasionally? We are an anti-government country and therefore do not, generally, get our best people in either politics or the permanent government. Our best people eschew the public sector, with the exception of a few jobs that have no private sector analog, like diplomat, judge, or United States Marine. That is not going to change any time soon.
Beyond that utilitarian objection, Conly's paternalism -- and paternalism in general -- assumes that people who make their own bad choices are worse off than people whom the government coerces in to doing the "better" thing, whatever that is. Why is it self-evident to Conly that a person who freely chooses to eat poorly and (for that matter) smoke, drink, and consort with other people who do the same, perhaps to die young, is not indeed happier than somebody coerced by even the most "competent" paternocrats to conform to the public health ideal in all such things? The strong and democratic reaction to Bloomberg's paternalism is itself evidence that Conly may not appreciate that many people regard the freedom to make bad personal choices as fundamental to individual human fulfillment. There is physical health, and there is spiritual or psychic health, and Conly is apparently delighted to crush the latter in favor of the former. Of course, we hope only because it is harder for the wonks to measure and therefore weigh in their cost-benefit analysis, but perhaps she is just a tyrant.
Oh. You think coerced is too strong a word? You probably assume that we dropped it in there to bait you, the reader. But it is Conley's word. Her book is Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism.