The Infantilism of Government Policy
All government policy treats people as infants. I have made this claim before in a couple of different contexts. It is true both in the way government assumes that we cannot make decisions for ourselves, and it is true in the way government goes about its business. This is an obvious truth to most when considering outright authoritarian governments and dictatorships. Yet, it is just as true in a democracy.
We can see this dynamic at work in the United States when we consider several areas. I will set aside the damaging effects of these policies and focus on the larger rationale behind the policy. Please note, this “rationale” may be one that is sincerely held by proponents but is also serves to cover up base material and monetary motives behind many of the proponents of such policies.
Drug policy is an obvious example. The federal and many state governments tell us what we can and cannot put into our bodies. As if adults do not have the capacity to decide what risk/reward tradeoff is acceptable to them. Too many of the proponents, people simply cannot be trusted to decide if and how to indulge in drug use and to deal with the consequences, so they must be prohibited “for their own good”.
Sex work is another prime example of the infantilization of adults. It is accepted as fact that all sex work is “trafficking” and not done out of a voluntary choice by consenting adults. So, the trade is prohibited also “for their own good”.
The largest component of infantile impulses surrounds economic policy. It is also considered as fact that adults cannot manage their own careers and their own work arrangements or even affect a suitable work/life balance without control and coercion via the government. The underlying assumption of all economic policy is that people cannot provide for themselves without “help” from those who “know better”. The scope of this paternalistic policy sees the federal government regulate everything from the money supply to international trade to the amount of water that flushes down your toilet to the type of light bulbs in your fixtures. When you consider it, it is all simply justified by the belief that you cannot do any of this for yourself.
The Paternalistic Argument
Underlying the paternalistic argument is, as I said, the notion that people cannot decide so many things for themselves that they need the help of the government. Underlying this idea is the notion that people are not wired up to think rationally enough to make these type of decisions for themselves.
A good summary of this argument was made by a psychologist named Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 work Thinking, Fast and Slow. In this work the author posits two types of thinking: fast, which is instinctive and emotional, and slow, which is more deliberative and logical. The author breaks out the types of things that trigger one or the other response. He is not arguing for one solely over the other but is trying to identify biases that trigger one type (usually fast), when the other type (usually slow) would be better.
Mr. Kahneman talks at length about cognitive biases, recency biases and other biases that trigger an inappropriate response for a given situation. I found much of the book helpful in identifying better, clearer ways of thinking about how to make decisions. The fact that a book can help clarify people’s thinking is itself a testament to the ability of adults to manage their own lives.
The book concludes by making a public policy argument for a paternalistic state. People need to be “nudged”, by various incentives to make “better” decisions, which should produce “better” outcomes. This argument is applied to a range of policy areas. It may be the best argument that I have seen in trying to make the case for paternalistic policy. Keep in mind that many of these are policies that are desired by those motivated by economic interest and simple power politics. That is, they would be pushing for these policies regardless. However, do not underestimate the benefit of a thin veneer of intellectual justification. This was certainly true of Kohn Maynard Keynes giving a veneer of intellectual respectability to enlarging government spending in the 1930s.
Wait…Don’t the Nudgers Have the Same Biases?
The argument, however, derails when you stop to consider that the people who are charged with doing the nudging and with being the paternal guiders of people’s choices have the same biases as anyone else. They are as in the thrall of thinking fast when they should be thinking slow and vice versa as anyone else on the planet.
All humans have biases and wear blinders. As Saint Paul tells us in Romans 3:23, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. It is the sinful conceit of government that its proponents think they have the omniscience of God over society.
These biases are especially prominent when people are spending someone else’s money on someone else. There is simply no real incentive for bureaucrats to rationally allocate someone else’s assets. This harkens to the argument against socialism in general which was made convincingly 100 years ago. More informally we may think of a simple feedback loop that we all have when we decide on a course of action or purchase a good or service. We know quickly whether we like the good or service and whether the decision worked out for us. If it did not, we know how to respond quickly as well. This feedback loop is missing in the “Nudgers”. They are not the ones living with the decision or are using the good or service in question. They cannot possibly know whether it is a good decision or not. Therefore they cannot know how to respond if it is a bad or unworkable choice that is made. Simply put, they are in no position to weigh they tradeoffs between the various options that are in front of each of us every day.
Since this is true, then the obvious solution is to let people voluntarily cooperate and make their own decisions about their own lives. Working in a nonviolent, cooperative manner will not produce utopia (nothing human will), but it will produce better outcomes. Yes, people will make mistakes. They will quickly realize it and take steps to reverse those mistakes. The mistakes they make will not likely be as egregious or as long lasting as those made by bureaucrats. Also what mistakes are made will tend to be more localized than a governmental “one size fits all” paradigm.
So, the practical upshot of all this is that people will be better off by engaging in cooperative interactions than by being forcibly “nudged”. It should be obvious that this is also a more moral course of action, as it does not rely on violence and treats people as the adults God intended them to be.
But Government is When We All Get Together, Right?
Wrong! We simply do not need a government and God does not call on us to govern others-via nudges or clubs. Only God is sovereign and only God may govern. The rest of us are to get along.
Voluntary associations are when humanity gets together. Work, neighborhood associations, ministry endeavors, philanthropic activities, little league and visiting the sick-these are things we do to get together. “Getting together” via the government is like congregating in a prison yard…only with less charm.
Well intentioned or not, the argument made by the paternalists is obnoxious, demeaning, necessarily involves violence and treats others in a way none of us want to be treated. If we are truly ignorant and biased, then we need to put government away and cooperate not coerce. As people of faith we can and should do better than this. A proper response to God’s gifts to us would seem to “nudge” us in this better direction.
Praise Be to God