Bowdoin Professor Sarah Conly’s “Three Cheers for the Nanny State,” published in the Sunday New York Times, has done a great service to those of us who think Mayor Bloomberg is alone in his attempts to gloss over limited powers and the role of government, most recently with his “ban on Big Gulp.”
If Conly’s “Three Cheers for the Nanny State” is the best retort to New York Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling’s take down of the Bloomberg.
Behold the wisdom of the nanny statist:
After all, people can still get as much soda as they want. This isn’t Prohibition. It’s just that getting it would take slightly more effort. So, why is this such a big deal?
Obviously, it’s not about soda. It’s because such a ban suggests that sometimes we need to be stopped from doing foolish stuff, and this has become, in contemporary American politics, highly controversial, no matter how trivial the particular issue. (Large cups of soda as symbols of human dignity? Really?)
So, Conly believes that this has nothing to do with placing limits on government power, but out inability to grasp that we need to be stopped from doing “foolish stuff.” She continues:
A lot of times we have a good idea of where we want to go, but a really terrible idea of how to get there. It’s well established by now that we often don’t think very clearly when it comes to choosing the best means to attain our ends. We make errors….
We can’t figure it out ourselves, says Conly. Moreover, it’s really all about “dignity”:
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.
Conly, educated at the bastions of high thinking Princeton (BA), Cornell (MA), and Cornell (MA), may be as fine an advertisement against the left’s thinking (as well as an Ivy League education) as any messaging campaign the RNC would hope to undertake. For any of you whose children have the good fortune to be attending Bowdoin this Spring, Conly is offering courses both in “Love” and “Moral Problems.”
I was on leave during the academic year 2010-2011, spending the fall at the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, the spring in Oaxaca, Mexico. During that time I wrote a book, Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, which will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. Against Autonomy is a defense of paternalistic laws; that is, laws that make you do things, or prevent you from doing things, for your own good. I argue that autonomy, or the freedom to act in accordance with your own decisions, is overrated—that the common high evaluation of the importance of autonomy is based on a belief that we are much more rational than we actually are. We now have lots of evidence from psychology and behavioral economics that we are often very bad at choosing effective means to our ends. In such cases, we need the help of others—and in particular, of government regulation—to keep us from going wrong.
What is “undignified” is this assistant professor’s utter inability to grasp the role of government, that that role could possibly go wrong, or that principle (or law, indeed) has a place in assessing whether actions ought to be embraced.