Can a nanny state improve on personal choices?

Stephanie Francis Ward at the ABA Journal covers the panel discussion I participated in yesterday on local paternalism at the ABA Midyear in Chicago. The other panelists were Prof. Sarah Conly of Bowdoin College, author of Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, and Chicago Alderman George Cardenas, sponsor of a proposal to tax soft drink sales in the city. It was hosted by the ABA’s Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division and moderated by Hawaii land use lawyer Robert Thomas, who has much more at his Inverse Condemnation blog.


  • No.

    Next question.


  • You might as well ask if the children of ‘helicopter parents’ give their children the latitude to learn to make decisions.

  • Sarah Conly promises to save us from ourselves, but who will save us from Sarah Conly? Stated differently, a world in which we inevitably make some bad decisions and fail to achieve certain goals is, I suppose, regrettable. A world in which our lives are micro-managed to the point of beverage choices is hell on Earth.

  • Well, technically, yes. It’s always possible to find an example of a bad choice that central planning would have mitigated or prevented.

    The question is, what was the cost of that prevention.

    Running with scissors is dangerous. Is the solution to ban running, ban scissors, or to engage in a large safety-awareness campaign and provide medical care for those who experience an adverse event?

    And if you combine “reduce costs and waste wherever possible” with the remit to prevent scissor-running injuries, which of those three options makes the most sense?

    It’s expensive to treat injuries, and if scissors are legal then no matter how good your safety campaign is you’ll still have some injuries. Conversely, a ban on scissors is easy and cheap–just say “scissors? banned!” and you’re done. Enforcement is simple–if there are scissors they are illegal, end of discussion. And if scissors are banned, then ipso facto there will be no scissor-running injuries. It’s a win-win! We’ve controlled costs and improved public safety!

  • Stated differently, a world in which we inevitably make some bad decisions and fail to achieve certain goals is, I suppose, a world where we can learn from our mistakes and share that knowledge with others.

    A mistake is one-time only, but knowledge persists. Thus do we advance.

  • Apparently the ethical position that it is never right for the government to tell me what to do when it affects me is not the one to make here. I stated this earlier and it apparently has no takers. Instead I hear about personal growth and the importance of making mistakes. These are misleading arguments. Nor are they ones I would expect to hear on a site that claims to be Libertarian.

    Here is the debate, with 20-ounce Coca-Colas as the exemplar:

    Me: I want a 20-ounce Coca-Cola now.
    The Government: No you don’t. A 20-ounce Coke, if you make it a regular habit, will cause all sorts of long-term physical problems. They include bad teeth, diabetes and an early death.

    Me: Yes, I do. I know what I want now and you don’t.

    The Government: We know what you should want, so you can’t have it.

    Me: I don’t care about what you think I should want. I want a 20-ounce Coke. Give me a 20-ounce Coke.

    The Government: We’ve outlawed it.

    Although I have chosen a 20-ounce Coke as my example, you can substitute almost anything a government has controlled or limited now or in the past. from free speech to alcohol. Women demand the right to control their own bodies when it comes to abortions? I find that right a whole lot ickier than drinking a 20-ounce Coke.

    However, my original answer is clearer and more basic. Can a nanny state improve on personal choices? No. Next question.


  • Bob, do you support a woman’s right to choose to do what she wants with her body? Or do you think that is icky? Is the important thing what you think is icky or allowing for maximum personal freedom? It sounds like instead of having a hard and fast rule, you actually take each case on the merits. You appear to be opposed to abortion – with good reason as I see it – and against banning 20-ounce sodas. I’m with you on that one too.

    Many people don’t like the nanny state – hate the nanny state – unless they thing on that particular issue we need a nanny.

    I’m against the banning of 20 ounce sodas. Should we tax them more like alcohol, gasoline, and such? I think we should.

    Do you think there should be no sin taxes and everything should just be legal? Gambling, heroin, let’s just let it all rip? Or should we get off our high horse and pick and choose our spots as a society and let the chips fall as they may?

    I also want to point out that I support a full ban on running with scissors and helmetless bike riders. I saw something in the Economist this weekend saying that 61% of motorcyclist without helmets are paid for by the taxpayers. The argument: if I pay, I have a say.

  • Both, Ron. I think abortion is icky and I support her right to do with her body as she feels fit. there are lots of things that go on that I disapprove of but are none of my business. Money is a false issue Otherwise, I should have a say on who uses the roads that my tax dollars pay for. I don’t like that guy? He can’t use the road.


  • Ron you just articulated the best argument against state-financed healthcare, and it is a matter that is routinely left out of discussions about the subject. The left claims to offer a freebie when it comes to healthcare, whether it is the Obamacare subsidies, or their ultimate goal of single-payer. Left unmentioned is the true quid pro quo they have in mind, neatly summed up by “if I pay I have a say.” That is, in exchange for government-financed health insurance we cede our personal freedom and autonomy to a slow but steady barrage of nanny-state regulation.

    I’ll pass, as I think most people would if they understood the “deal.”

  • Well, I’m not sure that is the same thing. We are not talking about picking out roads. We are talking about a class of expenses that we would rather not endure as a society. If we think we should be building roads, we vote that. If we think we should not be building roads, we vote that.

    The question is where do you draw the line. We draw it in different places. Should rocket launchers and heroin be perfectly legal because we can be everyone’s nanny? (Anthrax does not kill. People kill.) I think where we draw the line is case by case. We can and will disagree as to where to draw that line but these blanket “let’s stay out of the everyone’s lives” is just not realistic unless you want to live in the Western Sahara.

  • And I draw it well to the other side, Ron. I recognize the tension of different issues. I just am far more willing to draw it on the side of personal freedom than you are. This does not mean that I do not recognize the responsibility that comes with such a position. Nonetheless, I felt a certain amount of ironic tension while listening to the president saying wearily in a said-this-ten-thousand-tiemes-and-you’re-making-me-say-it-again voice “If you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance” while opening a letter from my provider in which they told me that they were cancelling my policy because it did not meet the standards under the law. Sometimes life is very artistic.


  • […] can watch here (earlier). Related videos, including those of the other panelists, at the American Bar Association […]

  • Ron said: ” The argument: if I pay, I have a say.”

    Ahem….then just stop paying. The simplest of all solutions. No more complex, more intrusive “fixes” needed to “fix” the “unintended” consequences of the last over reaching “fix” to a problem. Simply undo the last thing that created the problem and poof…..solution.

    And once Government gets out of the business of paying (with dollars taken at the point of a gun, I will remind the readers), then Ron, with your charity dollars, you have all the say in the world in what you choose to, or not, pay for… do I.

  • No Name Guy: Man shows up in the ER without medical insurance after a motorcycle accident. He is not wearing a helmet. He has a head injury. He is dying. What should we do?

  • Look for the suicide note.