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Cass R. Sunstein on the case for "coercive paternalism"

Charles Fried and Godfrey Hodgson on the legal theorist Ronald Dworkin, who died last Thursday at the age of eighty-one

Robert T. Miller on Dworkinand how hard it is to think and talk as one should about one's intellectual adversariesEd Smithon why Orwell was wrong about the moral virtue of plain language:

When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction Lets be clear, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.We live in a self-consciously plain-spoken political era. But Orwells advice, ironically, has not elevated the substance of debate; it has merely helped the political class to avoid the subject more skilfully. The art of spin is not (quite) supplanting truth with lies. It aspires to replace awkward complexities with catchy simplicity. Successful spin does not leave the effect of skilful persuasiveness; it creates the impression of unavoidable common sense. Hence the artifice becomes invisible just as a truly charming person is considered nice rather than charming.


About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



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The Sunstein piece is quite interesting. I favor motorcycle helmet laws, and I think Bloomberg's soda cup size limit is really dumb, but I have a difficult time explaining why one is ok and the other is irritatinglyy intrusive.

The Sunstein piece, and the book under review, makes a case that the Enlightenment's certainty about our rational self-possession is coming apart. This isn't a trivial squabble about nanny states. It could signal a real opening for the sorts of communitarian arguments made by Catholic social thought.

The piece reminded me of something I believe I read in Isaiah Berlin's essay on the two kinds of freedom, where he was talking about the Enlightened figures who served or wished to serve the Enlightened monarchs of the eighteenth century. When the objection was raised that the ordinary people would resist many of the Enlightened reforms, they replied that the people were simply mistaken, were not governed by "reason," and their views, therefore, did not count. It made me wonder if the adage, "Error has no rights," might be an Enlightenment proposition. I have never heard it that it was invoked in the Middle Ages, but it sure fits certain modern situations. "Coercive paternalism"--I love the phrase!

Almost certainly the absence of the proposition during the Middle Ages is indicative of Charles Taylor's point in A Secular Age, that the Middle Ages was a time when it wasn't possible to conceive of any alternative worldview. Christian hegemony was so total that it wasn't possible to imagine any claim against it. It took the Reformation to accomplish that, the fragmentation of Christianity into different varieties that overlaid alternative claims with at least the patina of Christian baptism and would prepare the way for broader conscience rights claims in the days of the Enlightenment. To say "Error has no rights" is an Enlightenment proposition may be right, but there is a deeper historical sense in which the divisions within Christianity provoked that Enlightenment--and all its salutary and less salubrious consequences in and outside the Church.

Though there's much to admire in Mill, I've never been convinced by his arguments for freedom -- that you can do as you like, as long as no one else is affected (I know that's a simple version of what he says). The reason for me to force you to wear a motorcyle helmet is simply that if you smash yourself up, spill all over the Interstate, and wind up more dead than alive in the Concord, NH hospital (NH still has no helmet law, I think), all of us, everywhere, are going to help pay, one way or another, for the treatment you get there. For some it will be higher med insurance premiums, for NH taxpayers it will be the costs of cleanup and getting you to the hospital, etc. etc. The same of course applies to Bloomberg's law: if you overdose on Sprite, and become a diabetic, we all suffer financially. No man is an island, as the poet says, nor does his insurance bill and medical treatment mean that he is cut off from the rest of us. So many of our actions, which might seem individual, actually carry social ramifications. I don't think Sunstein engaged that issue, or perhaps I skimmed his very thoughtful article too quickly. Of course you can carry that argument forward indefinitely; if I engage in promiscuous sex, and you fail to put on sunscreen before going out for your morning walk, are we equally at fault? I don't know where to draw the line. Certainly the Enlightenment has no good answer -- unless it is, of course, the Votairean view put forth above (for some of them the idea ruler was the Emperor in Peking). Our version of it today, of course, is that we know the people's interests better than they do, so why don't they shut up and let us get on with the business of ruling.

For "idea" above read "ideal," and one of the Enlightenment figures who put forth that view about the Chinese emperor was Voltaire's contemporary Pierre Poivre (I'm not making this up).

The older I get the more I think that many people want/need/crave someone to tell them what to do. It's why there are fundamentalists of all sorts, not just the religious kinds. it's why many people are natural-born royalists. It's why some people are infatuated with celebrities as role models. For some it's lack of confidence in their own understanding of what is right and wrong -- "Ask Father!". The authority relieves them of responsibility for their own decisions. For others it seems to be a sort of primal fear and the hope of someone who will protect them -- Heil, Hitler!.

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