Addicted to paternalism
Are we afraid to be free?
James Kirkup has written a depressing article for The Spectator in which he notes the absence of widespread opposition to Sunak’s ban on disposable vapes and the gradual suppression of everything from cigars to cigarette papers. He argues that this is a sign of things to come and that British ‘public health’ policy “will lean towards interventionism in the years ahead”. I’m sure this is true, especially if there continues to be no organised resistance. I have been warning of this ever since the 2007 smoking ban and have been proved right faster than I ever imagined.
But, as James says, it’s not just that people don’t actively oppose the continual extension of the state into their personal lives. A lot of them actively want it. He cites the usual ridiculous figures for childhood obesity and goes along with the economically illiterate delusion that obesity will bankrupt the NHS, but it is partly because so many people believe this guff that he is right to say that food and drink are next in the firing line. And alcohol too.
This is part of the wider pattern that Aveek Bhattacharya of the Social Market Foundation observed in a paper last year. Most surveys suggest that most people are relaxed about policies that make it harder or more expensive to buy and consume stuff they think is bad for them.
That’s because they have become used to it. The idea that some things are simply none of the government’s business is fading out of the world. As far as many people are concerned, banning things is what the government is for. Do a Google search for “is it time to ban” and see how many things people want to prohibit! (Do a search for “is it time to legalise” and you’ll just find stories about weed.)
It is as if there is a natural historical process in which liberties must gradually disappear and it is just a matter of picking the right ones at the right time. Sometimes a ban might adversely affect you, but that’s alright because the next ban might adversely affect people you don’t like.
Bans don’t provide lasting satisfaction. A perceived problem is built up and exaggerated until it assumes a terrifying dimension and then a ban is introduced. But the problem doesn’t go away or is replaced by another problem and we need another ban to restore our sense of purpose. How much satisfaction can you get from stopping other people doing things anyway? It’s not a good model for a happy life.
Chasing something that never really satisfies us and needing to do it again. Sounds a bit like an addiction doesn’t it?
In his later years, the economist and public choice theorist James Buchanan wrote an article titled ‘Afraid to Be Free: Dependency as Desideratum’ (2005) in which he argued that although economic collectivism had fallen into disrepute, ‘socialism nevertheless will survive and be extended in the new century’.
That gloomy prospect looms, not because socialism is more efficient or more just, but because ceding control over their actions to others allows individuals to escape, evade and even deny personal responsibilities. People are afraid to be free; the state stands in loco parentis.
While libertarians generally disapprove of paternalism, especially when it involves state coercion, Buchanan argues that many people appreciate the ‘parental shelter’ when they are growing up and look for a substitute when they leave home.
Religion, or God as the transcendent force that exemplifies fatherhood or motherhood, has and does serve this purpose (more on this below). Organized community is a less satisfactory but nonetheless partial parental replacement for some persons. More importantly, and specifically for purposes of the discussion here, the collectivity - the state - steps in and relieves the individual of his responsibility as an independently choosing and acting adult. In exchange, of course, the state reduces the liberty of the individual to act as he might choose. But the order that the state, as parent, provides maybe, for many persons, well worth the sacrifice in liberty.
It is not a novel observation to say that some people prefer safety over liberty, but Buchanan is not talking about freedom from fear, but freedom from responsibility, freedom from having to make decisions.
Note that, as mentioned earlier, the source for extension in collective or state control here is “bottom up” rather than “top down”, as with paternalism. Persons who are afraid to take on independent responsibility that necessarily goes with liberty demand that the state fill the parental role in their lives. They want to be told what to do and when to do it; they seek order rather than and order comes at an opportunity cost they seem willing to bear.
The thirst or desire for freedom, and responsibility, is perhaps not nearly so universal as so many post-Enlightenment philosophers have assumed.
And so Buchanan concludes…
The legacy of Marx is a spent force. The legacy of Bismarck is alive and well.
A few years ago, I heard David Hockney on the radio, complaining about smoking bans, amongst other things. I’ve never been able to find the interview online but, paraphrasing slightly, he said “I used to live in Bohemia and I think it’s sad that Bohemia has been taken away from young people. But then the young people don’t seem to mind so I suppose it doesn’t matter.”
You could say live and let live. If people want to live without responsibility, that’s up to them. The trouble is that their desire to have the state push them around has an obvious impact on those of us who do not want to be pushed around. It is us or them, and at the moment it looks like it is them.
On that cheery note, I will leave you with my favourite quote from Alexander De Toqueville who saw all this coming in the nineteenth century. It comes from a chapter of Democracy in America titled “What Sort Of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear”.
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.