Totalitarian-by-Proxy: Sarah Conly’s “Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism?”

The stereotypical image of an ambitious tyrant is of Adolf Hitler haranguing crowds of rapt Germans, or of machismo-obsessed Benito Mussolini addressing his adoring audiences in a belligerent, hands-on-hips, jutting jaw pose. To their sole credit, they could deliver their calls to totalitarianism without the benefit of Teleprompters.

Then we have the less hysterical, snooze-inducing example of Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, discussing in a pontificating, patronizing-the-rubes manner the necessity of banning everything under the sun for “your sake” and the “sake of society,” forcing us to “understand.” Bloomberg bypassed protocol and issued a ban on “sugary” soda drinks larger than 16 ounces. A New York Supreme Court judge shot down the ban on March 11th.

Finally, we have an academician, one of countless retiring, oft-times publicity-shy professors, who also sanction tyranny and totalitarianism by advancing compulsion and submission in the classroom and in books. May I introduce Sarah O. Conly, assistant professor of philosophy at Bowdoin College? She is the author of Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism? The title may have been an oversight. Was it supposed to have been Justifying Coercive Maternalism, or have employed some gender-neutral neologism that editors decided was too awkward? In any event, that “sexist” Paternalism suggests that Conly is not a “feminist,” but rather a “counter-feminist” or “anti-feminist.” Who knows? But she is an advocate of the Nanny State.

In her New York Times Op-Ed, “Three Cheers for the Nanny State” (March 24th), Conly, after the New York Supreme Court invalidation of the soda ban, wants to know:

WHY has there been so much fuss about New York City’s attempt to impose a soda ban, or more precisely, a ban on large-size “sugary drinks”? After all, people can still get as much soda as they want. This isn’t Prohibition. It’s just that getting it would take slightly more effort. So, why is this such a big deal?

Obviously, it’s not about soda. It’s because such a ban suggests that sometimes we need to be stopped from doing foolish stuff, and this has become, in contemporary American politics, highly controversial, no matter how trivial the particular issue. (Large cups of soda as symbols of human dignity? Really?)

If necessary, large cups of soda just might need to be symbols of freedom. Or it might be a lit cigarette, or a restaurant’s sugar dispenser, or a salt shaker. Or perhaps Daniel Chester French’s statue of the Minuteman in Concord, Massachusetts.

Hitler, Mussolini, Obama, and Bloomberg are what Ayn Rand would call the Attilas of muscle. They employ force to achieve their perfect societies. Conly and her innumerable intellectual, Ivy-League rain-dancers, whose numbers stretch back to the early 20th century, would be the Witch Doctors, who employ fraud, deceit, lies, and a practiced dissimulation and verisimilitude to encourage mobs and their Attilas to achieve perfect societies of selflessness and self-sacrifice.

Conly is against the autonomy of the individual, that is, against the independence of the individual in a collectivist society.

John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859 that the only justifiable reason for interfering in someone’s freedom of action was to prevent harm to others. According to Mill’s “harm principle,” we should almost never stop people from behavior that affects only themselves, because people know best what they themselves want.

That “almost,” though, is important. It’s fair to stop us, Mill argued, when we are acting out of ignorance and doing something we’ll pretty definitely regret. You can stop someone from crossing a bridge that is broken, he said, because you can be sure no one wants to plummet into the river. Mill just didn’t think this would happen very often.

Conly writes on her own blog site about the theme of her Against Autonomy:

…I argue that autonomy, or the freedom to act in accordance with your own decisions, is overrated—that the common high evaluation of the importance of autonomy is based on a belief that we are much more rational than we actually are….

You see, Mill said it was okay to curb the freedom of the individual if that freedom somehow impinged on the freedom or rights of others, that is, if it caused “harm.” Mill was a Utilitarian. He argued that there was no real moral foundation for freedom. It was just more “practical” than other social systems of government. Freedom is a value, said Mill, but it cannot be validated in a Christian society or in one that reveres self-sacrifice, as ours does, and he regarded a Christian or altruist morality as the touchstone of ethical matters. Liberty can only be tolerated. Put another way, individual freedom and capitalism are the only guarantors of a church’s collection plate not going back to the pulpit empty. Mill says it himself:

I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control only in respect to those actions of each which concern the interest of other people.1.

Mill does not provide specifics or examples of how an individual’s actions might harm others to the extent that a government (or “society”) should step in and compel the individual to desist. The Left, in its quest for a socialist or communist society, has provided several score instances. Refer to all the back issues of the Federal Register for any or all of them. The conservative Right has advanced no arguments against these incursions, because it is basically Utilitarian in nature. It is not opposed to the regulatory state, only to “big” ones.

Conly goes on about Mill:

Mill was wrong about that, though. A lot of times we have a good idea of where we want to go, but a really terrible idea of how to get there. It’s well established by now that we often don’t think very clearly when it comes to choosing the best means to attain our ends. We make errors. This has been the object of an enormous amount of study over the past few decades, and what has been discovered is that we are all prone to identifiable and predictable miscalculations.

And all these “identifiable and predictable miscalculations,” if they somehow subject others to real or imagined harm, should be the subject of government regulation or prohibition. Conly resorts to the argument from authority by falling back on the work of other academicians to substantiate her claim. We suffer, according to some Nobel Prize-winning psychologists and behavioral economists (What is a behavioral economist? Is it anything like a Paul Krugman “economist” or an Al Gore meteorologist?), from something called “cognitive bias,” “status quo bias,” and a “present bias,” because we are mostly “irrationally optimistic.” Bad things, we are prone to think, can’t happen to us, just to others.

It’s all about “harm,” mostly imagined, and Mill’s discussion of the concept is vague enough that academicians have been chasing their tails in attempts to defend it as a justification for government coercion. The “Harm Principle” has given these academicians something to think about, and to write long, discursive papers without coming to any substantial conclusions. For example, Gordon Hemsley, in his 2008 paper, “Government Authority: John Stuart Mill and the Harm Principle,” opens with:

In simply analyzing the Harm Principle, it becomes apparent that is too vague and ambiguous to govern alone. Many questions are raised immediately: Must the harm be physical, or can it be psychological? Must the harm be intentional? Is the individual also responsible for a lack of action? Does the individual harmed have to be a human being, or can it be of another species or character? What if the other individual desires to be harmed? If one single principle is to be used to govern a state, it cannot raise this many questions.

Furthermore, there are many other principles and concepts that are required to address the aforementioned deficiencies of protection that the Harm Principle affords. For example, a government that wishes to protect citizens from themselves would have to invoke Legal Paternalism (as defined by Joel Feinberg). Also, in order to provide for less fortunate citizens, or to simply create a communal resource, a government might have to invoke Alan Wertheimer’s Collective Benefits or Need Principles….The Harm Principle, as it is currently defined, does not specify what qualifies as harm.

Governing by the “harm principle,” argues Hemsley, isn’t enough. Government needs more powers and a better moral sanction to exercise those powers. However, Hemsley does not say what kinds of powers. He stops shy of being as blunt as Conly about what those powers should be.

Conly is more specific than Mill or Hemsley about the Progressives’ Herbert Croly-esque “moral tonic” of government power.

The freedom to buy a really large soda, all in one cup, is something we stand to lose here. For most people, given their desire for health, that results in a net gain. For some people, yes, it’s an absolute loss. It’s just not much of a loss. [Italics mine.]

That’s an overbearing, nattering Nanny speaking. Never mind your cigarette, or your Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, or salt-seasoned cheeseburger and fries or pasta. You can live without those things. It’s not much of a loss. Your desires are irrelevant. We will force you to understand this.

But it’s little losses like those which eventually make possible this kind of loss, for example, when President Obama just willy-nilly signs (another) executive order:

Last Thursday, while the nation was busy preparing for their Easter holiday President Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, a wing of the federal government he has tasked with “election administration,” a move critics say is an attempt to nationalize the country’s elections for partisan advantage.

The executive order establishes a nine member board, appointed by the President, that “shall be drawn from among distinguished individuals with knowledge about or experience in the administration of State or local elections… and any other individuals with knowledge or experience determined by the President to be of value to the Commission.”

The ostensive purpose of this executive order is to prepare for the 2014 mid-term and 2016 presidential elections and to help to ensure Democratic hegemony by registering millions of illiterate and semi-literate voters. For you, the individual who values his freedom and doesn’t wish to see more statism and regulation and the perpetuation of the Nanny State, it’s “not much of a loss.” Right?

Among one of the missions of the board will be to “ensure that all eligible voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots without undue delay, and to improve the experience of voters facing other obstacles in casting their ballots, such as… voters with limited English proficiency.”

In a bold and unprecedented step, the executive order, which side steps any legislation or national debate, created a federal Commission that shall consider, ”the number, location, management, operation, and design of polling places; the training, recruitment, and number of poll workers; the efficient management of voter rolls and poll books; voter education; and voting accessibility for individuals with disabilities, limited English proficiency, and other special needs.”

In a long, confusing, and inconclusive 2005 paper by Conly, “Seduction, Rape, and Coercion,” which discusses all the parameters of consensual and non-consensual sex, there is no mention of the Islamic texts and fatwas that sanction the rape and murder of Muslim and non-Muslim women, nor of their slavery, nor of the status of women in Islam. I guess that is because we mustn’t judge another culture’s faith/ideology, because that would be evidence of intellectual and moral “imperialism.” Islam is an ideology tailor-made for macho men, and conforming to it would require Conly to swelter in a burqa or else suffer rape and coercion. But, as with most Western “feminists,” she has nothing to say on the subject.

Conly isn’t finished with her Witch Doctor’s rain-dancing. She’s at work on another opus, this one about something very personal but whose abridgement or loss can’t be “much of a loss,” either. She’s done your thinking for you.

I’ve now started on my next book, tentatively titled One: Do We have a Right to More Children? …. In One, I argue that opposition to population regulation is based on a number of mistakes: that the right to have a family doesn’t entail the right to have as many children as you may want; that the right to control one’s body is conditional on how much harm you are doing to others; and that nothing in population regulation entails that those who break the law can be forced to have abortions, or subject to any sort of punishment that is horrific. If population growth is sufficiently dangerous, it is fair for us to impose restrictions on how many children we can give birth to.

Nanny has spoken, and will speak again. Having “too many” children may “measurably” harm others. Welcome to China, that paragon of fascist economic and population planning.

What most people do not understand is that is it “thinkers” like Conly – one of a long, long line of wannabe tyrants-by-proxy stretching back to Plato – who empower, by default, the Attilas in our midst and in our political establishment. Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, and Hugo Chavez, long before they were even born, were preceded by generations of intellectuals who paved the way for their rise to power. Conly doubtless will be a mere footnote to the history of statism in America.

Nevertheless, she deserves slapping down and exposure for what she is: a fantasizing power-luster. If something evil comes this way, she has helped to open the door to it.

1.  John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. 1859 (London: Rowman & Littlefield., 2005), p. 25.