Topic: Political Philosophy

David Harsanyi’s Nanny State

In the Washington Post today, Anita L. Allen of the University of Pennsylvania reviews Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America into a Nation of Children by David Harsanyi. She makes a point that I’ve thought a lot about in discussions of our growing “nanny state”:

But Americans were never as free as Harsanyi imagines….

It is true that in 1960 U.S. automobile drivers did not have to wear seat belts. But overreaching rules of other sorts reigned supreme. Under “blue laws,” most retail stores and virtually all liquor stores were closed on Sundays, presumably so everyone could stay sober and go to church. More profoundly, in 1960 married couples could not legally obtain birth control in Connecticut, mixed-race couples could not marry in Virginia, black kids in Georgia attended underfunded segregated public schools and homosexual sex was against the law.

No free-marketer, Allen leaves out a few other attributes of 1960, like 90 percent income tax rates and rigid regulation of transportation, communications, and finance.

Open the newspaper on any random page, and you can find evidence of the growing tendency to meddle in our lives: seat-belt laws, smoking bans, trans-fat bans, potty parity, and on and on. But are those things worse than the older laws that Allen cites? And if you go back further than she did, you can find worse indignities: established churches, slavery, married women denied property rights. So while we should deplore the deprivations of freedom that Harsanyi explores, we should not necessarily conclude that we’re progressively less free.

Allen also complains that

Readers have to wait until the final pages of this book to learn exactly why Harsanyi thinks the nanny state is a bad thing. The nanny state creates a moral hazard, he claims. “People act more recklessly when (purported) risk is removed.” Plus, “the rigidity of nanny regulations does not allow consumers to practice common sense and protect themselves.”

That’s a good consequentialist reason to oppose the nanny state, but it’s not the best reason. The real reason that we should be free to make our own decisions about seat belts, smoking, and fatty foods is that we’re adults; that we’re endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to be free is to have moral autonomy and personal responsibility.

Still, any author should be thrilled to have the Washington Post recommend that we “read Harsanyi as a 21st-century John Stuart Mill.”

Where’s Vargas Llosa?

Doris Lessing is no doubt a deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and given her advancing age the Swedish Academy may well have felt that recognizing her was urgent. But I can’t help noting what the Washington Post’s book critic, Jonathan Yardley, said on Sunday:

In the world at large [Mario Vargas Llosa] is known as one of the leading writers in the Latin American literary “Boom,” his acclaim today probably exceeded only by that lavished upon Gabriel Garcia Marquez. That he has not been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature is nothing short of scandalous.

After deploring the “many nonentities to whom the prize has gone in recent years,” Yardley suggests a possible reason for the continuing error:

Doubtless the prize went to Garcia Marquez on merit, but doubtless as well his cozy relationship with Fidel Castro helped his cause; Vargas Llosa by contrast is of a more conservative persuasion, and this the complacently ideological Swedes do not countenance, much less honor.

If Yardley read Vargas Llosa’s nonfiction as carefully as his fiction, he would note that the great author considers himself a liberal, not a conservative. But the social democrats of Sweden dislike real liberalism as much as conservatism.

Gerson’s Lament

In the WaPo today, Michael Gerson worries that conservatives have “beg[un] to question the importance or existence of moral ideals in politics and foreign policy.” But Mr. Gerson’s idealism, on display in Iraq, has been revealed as delusion. The war in Iraq has sown carnage and instability rather than “freedom” in Iraq, killed nearly 4,000 Americans, and bled more than half a trillion dollars from the pockets of American taxpayers, rather than making us more secure.

The distinction at the heart of the debate over foreign policy is different than that described by Mr. Gerson: it is not between instinctive opponents and proponents of radical change, but between the empirical and the notional—between, on the one hand, those who adhere to observable reality, drawing from history and social science, and, on the other hand, those who rely on the abstract ruminations of essayists in comfortable chairs.

Like so many proponents of the Iraq disaster, Mr. Gerson writes as if the past 5 years never happened, demonstrating himself to be a steadfast adherent to Max Weber’s ethic of ultimate ends and in opposition to Weber’s ethic of responsibility. The former, in Weber’s nomenclature, determines that “if an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil.” The latter, by contrast, acknowledges the importance of outcomes: “he will say: these results are ascribed to my action.” Weber warned that “in the world of realities, as a rule, we encounter the ever-renewed experience that the adherent of an ethic of ultimate ends suddenly turns into a chiliastic prophet.”

There’s really a bit of irony in all this. After all, it was President Bush who once told a confab of religious writers that

The culture needs to be changed. I call it, so people can understand what I’m talking about, changing the culture from one that says, “If it feels good, do it, and if you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else,” to a culture in which each of us understands we’re responsible for the decisions we make in life. I call it the responsibility era. …

Cato Offers Home Study Course

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Pelosi’s World

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s understanding of government’s role in a liberal democracy (and of the veto power) may be worse than I thought. A reporter sends a transcript of a press conference that Pelosi held yesterday, where she made the following remarks:

Oh, [President Bush] used the veto pen to veto the stem cell research bill.  That was a major disappointment… . I remember that veto very well because he was saying, “I forbid science to proceed to improve the health of the American people.”

Regarding Bush’s threatened veto of the Democrats’ expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program:

The President is saying, “I forbid 10 million children in America to have health care.” You know from your Latin that is what “veto” means.

Pelosi should know that there is a difference between the government not funding something and forbidding it. 

My colleague Sigrid-Fry Revere documents that stem-cell research proceeds even — or especially? — in the absence of government funding. Anyone with passing familiarity with SCHIP knows the program covers millions of children who would have health insurance anyway — and even more children who would still get health care if the program disappeared tomorrow. Yet Pelosi thinks that vetoing SCHIP expansion is the equivalent of stormtroopers kicking in clinic doors to stop a well-baby visit.

Notably, no one from the press challenged either comment.

Upcoming Cato Forum on the Rights of Terminally Ill Patients

In 2006, a panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that terminally ill patients have a constitutionally protected right to purchase and use experimental drug treatments not yet approved by the federal government. 

On August 7 of this year, the full D.C. Circuit overturned the panel ruling, holding that terminally ill patients have no such constitutional right.

On September 25, this coming Tuesday, the Cato Institute will host a policy forum titled, “Should the Government Insert Itself between Dying Patients and Unproven Therapies?“ 

Debating the rights of terminally ill patients will be Scott Ballenger, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs in that case; Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist with the National Institutes of Health and a leading critic of the panel’s ruling; and yours truly.

The forum will be from 12-1:30pm, followed by a luncheon.  Register here.