Adults should pay for their own babysitting

I can’t tell if this editorial by David Broder is supportive of what the Economist calls “soft paternalism”. Perhaps it’s from over-exertion yesterday in putting together lots of adult furniture to replace the dorm-like furniture that someone seems to believe has outlived its useful life, but I’m just not getting it. I suspect that he’s ridiculing it, but being unsure, perhaps a government-provided summary would be appropriate. No matter, though, I can still comment on a few of his points. First, this setup:

The subject of the issue’s lead editorial and a three-page special report is the threat to individual freedom the editors discern in a new movement gaining support among some politicians and academics on both sides of the Atlantic.

They call it “soft paternalism.” Its practitioners “are paternalists, because they want to help you make the choices you would make for yourself — if only you had the strength of will and the sharpness of mind. But unlike ‘hard’ paternalists, who ban some things and mandate others, the softer kind aim only to skew your decisions, without infringing greatly on your freedom of choice.”

That should come as no surprise, given all the government-mandated “responsible” behavior. Whether it’s public Social Security, smoking bans, or broadcast decency enforcement, it’s clear that politicians don’t trust us to lead effective lives. I don’t see this trend slowing down until we retire these meddling politicians, and I don’t see us reversing many of the current encroachment’s, no matter what we say or do. But it’s worth trying.

The first example Mr. Broder provides is worth highlighting.

An example of soft paternalism can be found in Missouri. According to the Economist, the state has passed a statute barring some residents from setting foot in any of the 11 riverboat casinos it has licensed. Those who are caught violating the law can be arrested for trespassing and see their winnings confiscated by the cops.

That sounds pretty harsh, but the ban applies only to those who have voluntarily placed their own names on the list, in order to break their addiction to gambling. The magazine says that about 10,000 gamblers have taken that step in Missouri, seeking help for a problem in their lives.

I’m happy that 10,000 problem gamblers in Missouri have recognized that they need help. But Mr. Broder is mistaken if he think the ban only applies to those who voluntarily placed their names on the list. A quick look into how that list is enforced is enough to disprove that nonsense. Everyone who wishes to gamble at a riverboat casino in Missouri must now be screened ahead of time before being allowed in. We wouldn’t want anyone getting in who doesn’t want to get in. Yet, to achieve that allegedly worthwhile goal, every responsible gambler is, at a minimum, inconvenienced so that the state may use everyone’s tax dollars to baby-sit an adult. The ban may only apply to those who volunteer, but the enforcement applies to everyone.

On all these proposals, the Economist’s editors have one nagging concern: Will these soft paternalism schemes gradually, over time, erode individual freedom? Will soft paternalism simply be a way station on the road to a more authoritarian state, one where smoking is banned entirely or saving is required from every paycheck?

That’s a joke, right? Such is the outcome of all government paternalism. As mentioned above, look at the sweeping trend of public smoking bans, with the word “public” being defined in a broader manner with each new ban. (Not to mention that “public” bans are really bans on individual conduct on private property in which the property owner has consented.) As for Mr. Broder’s second point, I hope that he’s not serious paternalism might lead to forced savings. I’m sure he’s heard of Social Security, but I’m not sure he understands how it works (only in the mechanical sense, for I hope no one thinks it works functionally).

My worry list is not short, but this trend to paternalism increases it by one.

2 thoughts on “Adults should pay for their own babysitting”

  1. The problem is that there are very very few examples of paternalism, soft or hard, that can be shown to be objectively desirable, as opposed to merely subjectively desirable from the perspective of the central planners.
    I can think of only two examples of objectively defensible paternalism: mandatory vaccinations and default enrollment in 401(k) plans (i.e., opt-out rather than opt-in). There may be others, but they are few and far between.

  2. Excellent points. Thanks for commenting.
    Regarding mandatory vaccinations, that subject always arises in connection with the circumcision debate. What people don’t think through, which points directly at paternalism, is that they’re not working in the same manner.
    Vaccinations protect people from communicable diseases, the kinds which infect on no other criteria than the new host (non-vaccinated) lives and breathes. It’s a legitimate public health concern because people can die in large numbers with no behavioral cause on their part other than bad luck.
    With the paternalism of circumcision, by parental choice as a preventive measure, the notion that personal behavior matters is ignored. The same goes for smoking and snack food and whatever else exists as “good” in the minds of the central planners.
    And mandatory 401(k) enrollment is perfectly reasonable. Unlike Social Security, people can make the choice to be irresponsible, with no one to blame but themselves.

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