The Myth of Non-coercive Paternalism
By Tibor Machan - December 10, 2012

The father-son team Robert and Edward Skidelsky – the former a recent biographer and avid champion of John Maynard Keynes, the latter a professor of philosophy – have written a book that joins the long list of anti-free market tirades available to us from which we can learn just how terrible it is for a society to be populated by men and women who are free to act as they choose, especially in the marketplace. The book, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life (Other Press, 2012), holds out nothing novel – one is able to find the theme in most neo-Marxist works such as John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society, originally published in 1958 but reissued often and most recently, in 1999, by Penguin Books.

Non-coercive paternalism – joining other neologisms such as libertarian paternalism, coined by other critics of the free-market system like law professor Cass Sunstein – is what the authors are calling for in order to curtail the ambition of Americans who want to achieve economic success and financial security. The passage that is for me most philosophically problematic reads as follows: "Economists have no ambition to remake human nature." And they clear this up by noting that economists "take people as they are, not as they should be."

True enough, most economists are realists but they do not fit the description that they take people as they are, only, not as they should be. As economists, of course, they are not in the business of helping to reform people, unlike priests or psychologists. And this is exactly the right way for them to be. But what is most important to note is that people cannot be made good, made to be as they should be, by others. That is exactly the individual person's task. This is what other similarly inclined authors such as Professor Robert P. George, who lays out a similar thesis in his Making Men Moral (Oxford University Press, 1993) and James P. Sterba in his How to Make People Just (Rowman & Littlefield, 1988) overlook. Karl Marx did think human nature could be changed but because history, through various revolutionary, dialectical leaps, will achieve this, not any kind of paternalists.

The fact that bears most directly on all this is that human nature has the potential for everyone to turn out to be good or bad or mediocre. That is just what distinguishes people from other living entities. They are self-made as far as their moral character is concerned. This is a point discovered about them back in ancient Greece when Plato wrote his famous dialogue, Republic, which is by many interpreters understood to be an early warning against political idealism or utopianism. Don't look to politics to improve human beings; look to human beings to do this for themselves.

Indeed, the point of civilized life is that people must achieve improvements in their lives, including their societies, by way of their vigilance. Paternalism is okay when parents practice it on youngsters who aren't yet fit to govern themselves but once one reaches the age of reason, maturity, then paternalism breeds rebellion, mostly, the opposite of compliance.

Why then won't Skidelsky & Son get it and provide personal advice for self-improvement instead of public policies aimed at changing human nature? Probably it has to do with the widespread inclination of intellectuals to copy technologists who do make changes in the world by manipulating it. But that doesn't work with people, despite what these ambitious social engineers believe, the ones who follow the lead of the late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner who promoted behavior modification so as to improve us and society at large but met with no success in his efforts.

Because of all this the hope for non-coercive paternalism is futile. And Stalin and Hitler should have taught us this through their vicious experiments. But sadly, intellectuals are equally resistant to changing unless they become convinced it's worth doing it themselves. Until that day, those of us who know better remain vigilant, which is, after all, the price of liberty!

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