Save Me From Myself!

Parentalism and the fear of freedom


This weekend, I went out for a bout of activist carousing with Ban the Ban, a group opposed to the District of Columbia's proposed ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. I had expected to see plenty of heated arguments about the merits of the ban between smokers and non-smokers, and I did. I had not expected to see non-smokers attacking the ban on principle locked in debate with smokers who, between languorous puffs and grey exhalations, welcomed it as a means of reducing their own smoking.

If the argument—one I heard more than once from D.C. barflies—sounds strange, it is not, at any rate, rare. When New York City was mulling its own smoking ban, one young "man on the street" interviewee told the Village Voice: "I'd actually be all for it, which is odd since I am a smoker myself. I think it might make me smoke less. The increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes hasn't stopped me from smoking. I just have friends who come up to visit from Florida bring cartons for me."

If we ignore for a moment the morality of endorsing a public restriction as a means to a personal self-help project, this is in one sense a perfectly ordinary thought. We are all, sometimes, afflicted with akrasia, those attacks of weak will that lead us to satisfy fleeting desires at the expense of our own acknowledged long-term interests. Like Ulysses lashed to the mast, we empty the pantry of sweets, hire pricey personal trainers, join rehab groups, or loudly announce an intention to start working on that novel, knowing how embarrassed we'll feel if there's no progress to report when a friend asks how it's coming. Markets duly respond to our demand for self-restraint: Virgin Mobile recently introduced an anti-drunk dialing feature that allows users embarking on a pub crawl to block themselves from calling up that ex until the following morning.

There may even be ways for government to help us combat akrasia without overly restricting our freedoms. In his recent book The Ethics of Identity, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah offers (as a thought experiment more than a serious policy proposal) the example of the "self management card." When we go shopping for smokes or fatty foods or alcohol or a dose of heroin, Appiah imagines, the store is required to swipe our cards to ensure we haven't gone over a self-imposed limit, set by logging on to a special website set up for that purpose. An actual card of that sort would, of course, be a privacy nightmare, but it shows that attempts to help people make sound decisions need not be paternalistic.

Normal and necessary as these akrasia-countering mechanisms may be, though, they may also be symptoms of what Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan has dubbed "parentalism." Buchanan's term is not to be confused with paternalism, the familiar idea that sometimes people—other people—need to be restrained for their own protection from making poor choices. (In some cases, as with children or the severely mentally handicapped, this may well be right.) Parentalism is in a sense more insidious: It emerges when we begin to suspect that we ourselves are not competent to make our own choices, to yearn for someone to relieve us of the burden of choice. As Buchanan puts it:

[Economists and political theorists] have assumed that, other things being equal, persons want to be at liberty to make their own choices, to be free from coercion by others, including indirect coercion through means of persuasion. They have failed to emphasize sufficiently, and to examine the implications of, the fact that liberty carries with it responsibility. And it seems evident that many persons do not want to shoulder the final responsibility for their own actions..[They] want to be told what to do and when to do it; they seek order rather than uncertainty, and order comes at an opportunity cost they seem willing to bear.

The thought is not novel to Buchanan. Jean-Paul Sartre described the "anguish" that comes with our realization that we are "condemned to be free." Marxist psychologist Erich Fromm diagnosed the totalitarian movements of the 20th century as symptoms of an urge to "escape from freedom," from the displacement of a feudal world in which identities were given—a place for everyone, and everyone in his place—with a capitalist order that made who we were and what we were to become seem dizzyingly contingent. How much more true is that when the lodestones by which we navigated that sea of choices—religious communities, or localities with their own longstanding mores—are themselves objects of choice on the market, in an increasingly interconnected and mobile world that arrays communities and faiths before us like so many cans of soup on a Whole Foods shelf.

Contemporary theorists of choice paralysis sometimes talk as though the problem with abundant freedom of choice were merely that the cognitive demands of navigating modern markets' plenitude are uncomfortably high. Yet if that were so, then adaptive mechanisms to filter our choices—and, as described above, winnow out some of the tempting but destructive ones—would be the simple solution.

For the true parentalist, though, this will be unsatisfying, for the true parentalist wants to escape not just the burdens of the act of choosing, but the responsibility for making a poor choice. Voluntary market mechanisms for filtering or restraining choice will always, ultimately, have an escape clause: We can fire the personal trainer or tell our friends we've changed our minds about that diet or quitting smoking after all. And, in the final analysis, they allow us only to defer responsibility, not avoid it. The expert I consulted may have given me bad advice, yet I may still blame myself for a poor choice of experts.

There are plenty of practical problems with the parentalist impulse. As economist Glen Whitman notes in a forthcoming Cato Institute paper, we cannot assume we always help people by giving preference to their "long term" over their "short term" interests. Imagine an aging man in ill-health lamenting his sybaritic youth. We are tempted to say that his younger self, seeing the pleasures immediately available to him and giving short shrift to their long term consequences, exhibited a foolish bias toward the present. But surely it's also possible that his older self, faced with the proximate pains and inconveniences of poor health, discounts the pleasures past he'd have forsaken had he been more health-conscious. If we're prone to the first form of cognitive bias, why not the second?

Whitman also argues that, just as simple Pigovian taxes on pollution may be less efficient than allowing market negotiation to determine how much pollution will be produced in what location, sin taxes, smoking bans, and other parentalist attempts to spare our future selves the costs of our present choices may displace a rich variety of mechanisms for self-restraint that would match the rich variety of risk profiles and time-discount rates we find among members of a pluralistic society. And as the young man interviewed by the Village Voice demonstrated, we can be ingenious at outwitting imposed restraints—even those we welcome in principle. We may find ourselves running up bigger credit card bills to buy more sin-taxed Twinkies and cigarettes, or traveling inconvenient distances to find a smoke friendly bar.

But perhaps a more important problem with parentalism is that it licenses what Sartre called "bad faith," the attempt to avoid the burdens of responsibility by denying our own freedom. Classical liberals may even inadvertently encourage this by speaking of responsibility as "the other side" of freedom, as though it were the spinach that had to be cleared away before getting to desert. But is that really so? When we make trivial choices—what to have for dinner, what movie to see, which CD to buy—what we most value is the freedom to select without constraint from many options. Yet when it comes to our most central choices—what kind of person am I to be, what work will I find rewarding?—we may take as least as much satisfaction in the feeling of responsibility for our choices, in knowing that we have shaped a life that is ours even when we have chosen badly.

Classical liberals have become good at explaining how the market order they favor promotes freedom and happiness. They have been less adept at explaining why—at least past a certain point—people ought to want that freedom, which when genuine is always at least a little frightening. In the face of the parentalist impulse, we may need to develop the case that our bad choices, the choices that make us unhappy, are as vital and precious as the ones that bring us joy.