Parentalism, or please save me from myself

Interesting article in Reason Online about the wish to have others – any level of government, for example – choose for me, because I am too weak to choose for myself.  Economist James Buchanan dubbed this attitude parentalism, which might be considered the obverse of paternalism.

The article drags in Sartre’s bit about man being condemned to be free, and Erich Fromm’s ideas about the human desire to “escape from freedom” – both, for different reasons, utterly wrongheaded notions.  Parentalism today seems exemplified by the various bans on smoking, drinking, eating, and most anything else that might excite pleasure.  There are, as the piece notes, obvious problems with parentalism.

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.

Freedom, of course, isn’t about being free, a condition to which only a random-acting lunatic can attain.  Freedom is about pursuing the good life:  about directing our behavior toward something better than ourselves.  Similarly, the various bans are not, in my humble opinion, a demonstration of our desire to be saved from ourselves, but rather the exercise by the missionary-minded of power, which is a form of freedom.  The allure of authoritarian societies is that they are lawless, and tolerate behaviors a free people would condemn and punish.



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