It is for your own good – in defence of paternalism

Classical liberals like myself, often feel that freedom is a virtue.

While it is logically sound that we need good reasons for coercion, what about the cognitive-bias program which shows we are really bad at making decisions and dealing with probabilities?

   The famous research of Tversky and Kahneman, highlighted that when faced with complicated probabilities – to save on computational power – we use heuristics. One famous example is the ´availability heuristic´.

    So what does a classical liberal, and one who adored J.S. Mill while studying Political Philosophy, do when faced with the extensive empirical research presented by the social sciences. It is certainly true that some things are above introspection, and beyond our scopes of reason. The world – as many a physicist who has encountered the social sciences knows – is far too complex! We are frankly, not as competent as Mill would have us believe.

This reminds me of a quote by Franzen:

“It’s all circling around the same problem of personal liberties,” Walter said. “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.” 
― Jonathan FranzenFreedom

 We regularly see adults make horrendous financial decisions, the Irish Housing Bubble is testament to that, and many of us have lovers who smoke or consume too much sugar. How are we to align the notion of freedom, and allow people – in light of social science research – to make optimal choices?

I can not do better than Cass Sunstein so I shall quote him, and include the book review below.

Until now, we have lacked a serious philosophical discussion of whether and how recent behavioral findings undermine Mill’s harm principle and thus open the way toward paternalism. Sarah Conly’s illuminating book Against Autonomy provides such a discussion. Her starting point is that in light of the recent findings, we should be able to agree that Mill was quite wrong about the competence of human beings as choosers. “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.” With that claim in mind, Conly insists that coercion should not be ruled out of bounds. She wants to go far beyond nudges. In her view, the appropriate government response to human errors depends not on high-level abstractions about the value of choice, but on pragmatic judgments about the costs and benefits of paternalistic interventions. Even when there is only harm to self, she thinks that government may and indeed must act paternalistically so long as the benefits justify the costs.

The bottom line is: freedom isn´t always what it is cracked up to be, and Mayor Bloomberg was right with his proposed Soda ban to try to try to protect New Yorkers from themselves.