Wednesday, 12 August 2015


Dick Pountain/Political Quarterly/Against Autonomy 07/06/2013

Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism by Sarah Conly
Cambridge University Press, 206 pp., £55.00
ISBN 9781107024847

With the possible exception of "class", the most confused and confusing term in modern political discourse has to be "liberal". Among the various dictionaries on my bookshelf, the Collins' definition best exemplifies this confusion:

ADJECTIVE 1. Relating to or having social and political views that favour progress and reform 2. relating to or having policies or views advocating individual freedom 3. Giving and generous in temperament or behaviour 4. Tolerant of other people

Definitions 1 through 4 all to some extent contradict one another, since many individuals – whose freedom is always to be respected – are against progress and reform, may not be giving (especially when it comes to taxes), generous or tolerant of other people. Definition 1 corresponds to everyday American usage, often employed in a pejorative sense by conservatives, while 2 is closer to usage among academic economists and political scientists. Whenever we try to describe the system of government that prevails in Europe, the USA and those parts of the world we regard as "free", our term of choice is "liberal democracy", but which of those contradictory senses of liberal is that phrase invoking? That is, which concept should such societies value the more highly, freedom of the individual or progress?

A question something like this lies at the heart of Professor Sarah Conly's short but potent book "Against Autonomy". She shows that to provide an adequate answer requires unpacking the notion of freedom of the individual in the light of recent findings in social psychology and behavioural economics. Sense 2 liberalism depends upon individuals being capable of making free decisions about matters important to the conduct of their lives, but what if addiction, advertising or the intrinsic defects of human reasoning that psychologists like Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman have uncovered, so distort their decisions as make them no longer meaningfully free, leading people to behave in ways contrary to their own expressed interests and injurious to their health?

A perfect example is the recent dispute over, and ultimate defeat of, New York Mayor Bloomberg's initiative to ban the sale of sweetened of drinks like Coca Cola in containers larger than 16 ounces from city restaurants and other venues. Note that he wasn't advocating a ban on the drinks themselves – people with big thirsts would remain free to buy two smaller ones – he simply acted on medical advice that such huge buckets of Coke tempt people to buy more than they actually want and contribute to the epidemic of obesity. The measure was defeated by America's hatred of paternalism, that tendency of the state to tell them what's good for them, which they feel infringes their autonomy – their freedom to go to hell any way they choose.

Conly examines many such measures that fall onto a spectrum from total success (compulsory seat belts in cars, crash helmets for motorcyclists), partial success (smoking bans) to outright failures like those buckets of Coke or US gun control. She returns often to a favourite example of buying a house more expensive than your income can support, due to high-pressure sales tactics, over-optimistic assumptions that you'll remain employed and that interest rates will remain low, and impelled by fantasies of grandeur and big parties on the lawn. This is of more than academic interest, relating directly to the sub-prime mortage crisis that almost destroyed the world's financial system in 2007 and remains at the root of our current economic woes.

This a work of technical philosophy, though Conly's style is sufficiently approachable for any interested lay reader willing to afford its swingeing price. She sets out from a close analysis of the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill, to see where the boundaries of paternalism should be located. Conly believes not only that paternalism is necessary to the state in complex modern societies, but that it may justly be imposed wherever the stakes are sufficiently high (as with smoking) and its costs of imposition, in both money and offended freedom, are sufficiently low. She's concerned to combat both libertarian critics who reject any sort of paternalism at all, and an in-between position called "libertarian paternalism", as advocated by Cass R. Sunstein and Richard H. Thaler in their popular book "Nudge" (some aspects of which David Cameron incorporated into his largely-forgotten Big Society).

Libertarian paternalists share Conly's conviction that people often fail to make correct decisions concerning their own welfare, because as Kahneman's experiments have shown, we're all very poor at estimating probabilities and most of us have an inbuilt tendency to irrational optimism (the bookmaker's meal ticket). However libertarian paternalists depart from Conly's "coercive paternalism" over whether the State has the right to impose solutions on people in their own best interests: they claim it has no such right and may only "nudge" people toward the correct decision by clever structuring of rules and institutions. A typical nudge issue would be opting-in versus opting-out in various kinds of agreement like mobile phone contracts, warranties, mortgages and privacy agreements: people are lazy and will usually go with the default option, so carefully choosing that option can nudge rather than compel them in a desired direction.

The arguments involved become increasingly subtle. Conly only claims that coercion is justified in cases where people are tending to act against their own, recognised interests thanks to poor information or distorting factors, but not when some external authority like the state or medical profession has determined that person's best interest, which is quite often the case in medical matters like cancer and diabetes. She also takes much trouble to distinguish between "perfectionism" – which stipulates what people ought to do on some moral ground – and a paternalism that seeks only to help people achieve what they already want, were they sufficiently informed and equipped. This "paternalism of means" rather than ends separates her from all kinds of theocracy, as well as from authoritarian forms of socialism that impose moral dictates disguised as materialistic truth.

Cass Sunstein has reviewed "Against Autonomy" in the New York Review of Books (Mar 7 2013), where he points out that Conly's means-based paternalism runs the significant risk of being mistaken about what people actually want, and is also vulnerable to "slippery slope" objections – that some initiative which at first does good may lead toward more oppressive varieties (Conly devoted most of a chapter to tackling the latter issue). Nevertheless Conly and Sunstein are agreed that a significant degree of paternalism of one kind or the other is built into the very structure of modern regulatory states – over matters like food and road safety, prescription medicines and contract law – making it hardly possible any longer to value autonomy as an end in itself as strong libertarian critics of modernity like the US Tea Party do.

Strong social democrats might be expected to be fairly happy with both forms of paternalism, since social democracy depends to a high degree on various kinds of coercive state intervention, not only over matters like safety in the workplace but more fundamental economic issues like incomes, where the state opposes downward pressure from employers by imposing a minimum wage, and tax collection where the state may adopt coercive measures, up to and including imprisonment, as a penalty for evasion. (Conly might argue over whether these are paternalist or perfectionist measures though).

I would like to put forward another kind of objection from a social democratic point of view, because this whole discussion takes place within a conception of a well-functioning liberal democratic state and its best governance in the widest possible interests. What however if said liberal democratic state has become dysfunctional, in several different ways, so that: tax evasion by giant corporations has become so pervasive as to deprive the state of sufficient funds to achieve its ends; politicians have become suborned by these same corporations, so that attempts to regulate the corporations' activities are no longer effective; deregulation and privatisation have so increased inequality and decreased the power of labour that state paternalism is no longer an adequate remedy for its worst effects. In that case the structure of the state itself requires adjustment, but even the most coercive paternalism is hardly an adequate means to achieve that end. In other words, can Daddy really spank himself?


  1. "In that case the structure of the state itself requires adjustment, but even the most coercive paternalism is hardly an adequate means to achieve that end. In other words, can Daddy really spank himself?"

    What John Rentoul would call a QTWTAIN. Adjustments to the structure of the state either come about through gradualism or transformationalism. The former is vastly to be preferred, but I can'ty help thinking that if we carry on as we seem to be doing in both the UK and the US, the pitchforks are going to be brandished at some point.

    After discussions with many paternalists and libertarians, I can't help but comment that the majority of the latter come across as being total idiots. So I gravitate towards the former, if only because I fear for my sanity otherwise.

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  3. Clyde - know just how you feel. I've navigated a long slow transition from social democracy (mid 1960s) to revolutionary (late '60s) back to social democracy again (from mid '80s) but now I wonder where next...

  4. Why not? I'm in Camden, where are you?