In an ideal world political disagreements would be resolved through rational argument, with all sides eventually agreeing upon what logic reveals from the objective evidence. In this world, though, people are just too temperamentally different to ever see any evidence in the same light or share a common concept of logic.
The point was brought to mind by two recent pronouncements from women highly esteemed in elite circles for their intelligence, both of whom strike us as utterly insane.
One of the women was Sarah Conly, an assistant professor of philosophy at Maine’s Bowdoin College, who took to the opinion pages of The New York Times to offer “Three Cheers for the Nanny State.” The essay is primarily intended as a defense of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to dictate what size of soda his constituents may purchase, but it further attempts to justify even broader governmental efforts to regulate the most mundane aspects of a citizen’s life. She scoffs at “a vision of ourselves as free, rational beings who are totally capable of making all the decisions we need in order to create a good life,” cites research by prize-winning psychologists and behavioral economists to dispel this dangerous delusion of freedom, and seems quite confident that intellectuals such as herself are free and rational beings capable of making all the decisions the rest of us need in order to create her notions of a good life. Lest you worry that such thinking leads inevitably to totalitarianism, Conly assures us that because it is so very rational her envisioned Nanny State will apply a cost-benefit analysis that precludes anything so costly.
History is replete with governments that set out to make the decisions individuals need in order to create a good life and found that the benefits of mass murder and iron-fisted despotism were well worth the costs, and one would be hard-pressed to point to any government currently in existence that acts as if it were the slightest bit restrained by considerations of cost, but this is unlikely to affect Conly. She is mystified that her thinking “has become, in contemporary politics, highly controversial,” as if previous generations of Americans were more happily acquiescent to such highfalutin bossiness, and she even seems slightly offended that her fellow citizens aren’t more appreciative of her well-intentioned attempt to run their lives.
Not content with such paternalistic powers over you, Melissa Perry-Harris is also intent on running the lives of your children. A professor of political science at Tulane University, Perry-Harris has filmed a promotional spot for her new program on the far-left MSNBC cable network in which she laments that “We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we’ve always had kind of a private notion of children. Your kid is yours and totally your responsibility.” Clearly horrified by this widespread outbreak of parents taking responsibility for their children, she enthuses that “We haven’t had a very collective notion of these are our children. So part of it is we have to break through our kind of private idea that our kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.”
One hardly knows where to begin disputing such nonsense, but after America has been spending more per pupil than any other nation on earth except Switzerland the argument might as well start by wondering how much money we “should have” invested in education. One might also wonder what will be considered private in the collectivist paradise that Perry-Harris would have us break through to if a parental relationship is not, although one can assume that only after the children are born will their well-being be a responsibility of the state, and make the seemingly obvious point that the community will not love a child nor provide him individual attention in the same crucial way as a mother and father. Another nanny statist once tried to tell William F. Buckley that she loved his children every bit as much as he did, to which he famously responded by asking her to name them. Perry-Harris is probably unconcerned about individual attention being paid to any child, figuring it will only inculcate a troublesome sense of individuality, but even at her most telegenic she will never be able to convincingly convey love to children whose names she does not know.
Such arguments are unlikely to diminish the supreme self-confidence of Perry-Harris or Conly, however, and even holding a reasoned discussion with them seems daunting. We can protest to Conly she is challenging the very notion of individual autonomy and being coercive and paternalistic is unlikely to persuade Conly, but we expect this will not trouble the author of a book titled “Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism.” By their very nature they hold to a collectivist world-view that those of us of a more individualistic temperament simply cannot comprehend, and they are clearly just as baffled by us and our strange notions of individual rights.
Even the most individualistic of individuals will concede that some limits on autonomy are required to create a livable community, and all but the most ruthless of the collectivists have conceded that some scope of liberty is required for a human to live, so the successful societies have been the ones that were able to negotiate the limits on both individuals and the state through reasoned discussion. When that fails, as it so often does in personal encounters, it sometimes becomes necessary to tell the busy-bodies to butt out and mind their damn business.
— Bud Norman