Extreme Paternalism

(Though as Bryan Caplan points out, it might be better called Extreme Maternalism.)  In a comment on Friday, Michael Vassar suggested:

Why not simply extend the age of parental authority, or more optimally, designate a discrete set of "parental" authority types that individuals have periodic (annual) opportunities to review and to transfer to some other parental figure. Some sort of licensing might or might not be required for "in-loco parentis" candidates (and for biological parents, or perhaps not). The right to designate parental authority, as well as various reductions in such authority, might be gradually phased in with age, or as the result of various tests or maturity rituals, or possibly a combination of both.

This is very similar to a 1993 suggestion of mine, and both are attempts to find a minimal paternalism, realizing gains from decision review and veto, but retaining maximal flexibility and adaptation to individual variations.   

An opposite extreme would be extend paternalism to nations.  In civil rights, many argue national governments needed to overrule bad state decisions, for the good of those states.  So why not empower the United Nations to overrule what it sees as a bad decision by any nation, in the name of benefiting that nation?   

The reason for considering extremes is that simple arguments usually favor extremes. So you should either support an extreme, or find an argument complex enough to favor an intermediate position.  Why would national paternalism be a good idea, but international paternalism be a bad idea?

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  • Stuart Armstrong

    Why would national paternalism be a good idea, but international paternalism be a bad idea?

    In my case, I’m totally sold on international paternalism but not strongly attached to national paternalism. 🙂

    But the argument is not totally symmetric – you can claim that the “super-UN” would be paternalistic only to free the people of countries from an oppressive (thus extremely paternalistic) government.

  • Telnar

    The real problem with international paternalism is lack of agreed values. For most of the history of the UN, a majority of the states in it could not reasonably be regarded as respecting individual freedom.

    The question is whether it’s possible to articulate what it means to be deserving of the right to make paternalistic decisions in a way which even those nations which don’t respect individual freedom will agree with. If it isn’t, then there is no way to make this happen without using a great deal of force or waiting for the unfree nations to change on their own (something which, fortunately, has begun to happen).

    Social agreement to permit paternalism requires an implicit or explicit agreement about the ends to which paternalism is suited. Neither is present at close to a consensus internationally.

  • Stuart, you could claim that, but would you believe it?

    Telnar, nations, states, and cities also have many disagreements internally over values.

  • Telnar

    Robin, I think that there’s a bias in our normal discussions of differences which is quite important here. In ordinary conversation and news reporting, we focus on what is different and interesting. So, for example, I would not start a description of my parents by saying that they are bipeds who each have 2 eyes a nose and a mouth on their faces. Similarly, when I compare Texas to California, I don’t start the discussion by saying that neither is a military dictatorship and that in both it is possible for people of median income to own title to private land and obtain a mortgage using that title.

    There are many powerful forces which make American cities and states more homogenous other than the possibility that the federal government might threaten to or actually use troops to stop a state action. One of the most important and least noticed is free emigration. Citizens of Maryland have both the legal right and the practical ability to move to Pennsylvania if Maryland adopts a policy that they strongly oppose.

    To illustrate the extent of this homogeneity, look at the structure of US state governments. Every one is divided into legislative, executive and judicial branches with similar powers for each. Even when we focus on details which are less important, the uniformity is overwhelming. For example, only Nebraska among the 50 states does not have a bicameral legislature.

    On issues where there is considerable disagreement among US states like the level of taxes and government services to be provided, that disagreement is in a very small range compared to the worldwide range.

    Worldwide, the degree of consensus is far smaller. Some governments are representative; others are not. Some allow unrestricted emigration; others do not allow it at all (in fact, some do not permit unrestricted internal immigration). Some act to make private property secure; others do not act in this sphere; still other prohibit types of private property. Some provide extensive protections for free speech; others act arbitrarily against those who say things they don’t like.

  • Telnar, if places need “enough” agreement over values to have common paternalism, the question is of course how can one tell how much is “enough.”

  • TGGP

    I don’t have any confidence in the judgment of the United Nations being better than that of my country. I also don’t have any confidence in the judgment of my country being greater than that of my state. I do have confidence that conflict between the two will tend to politically empower the biggest yahoos.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Stuart, you could claim that, but would you believe it?

    Well, a “super-UN” isn’t here yet, but some of the early signs are promising. Concerning war, they’ve often intervened to try and end civil wars or broker/help enforce peace deals that normally end up granting greater autonomy to particular peoples. The military interventions they’ve allowed have normally been against repressive states, and whenever they’ve had the choice, they’ve promoted democratic elections/regimes.

    From other points of views, they’ve promoted education problems (and whatever issues and debates we might have over education in the west, in third world countries they are liberating) and health programs (the link with freedom is less obvious, but unhealthy people tend to be far less worried about political freedom, and dying is a definite loss of freedom).

    Various repressed peoples periodically pop up within UN meetings, garnering publicity, and the guilty governments often then pay at least lip service to the problem, than sometimes does improve the situation.

    The main flaw of the UN (and it has many flaws) is more a lack of doing things – if the big democracies aren’t keen on interventions, or if the big dictatorships want to veto it, nothing gets done (which explains why the social programs often get more done – they are not seen as important, and happen under the radar).

    Also you could argue that they often prefer stability over true solutions (such as ending a civil war rather than letting it fight itself out to the end – but not intervening would be a callous and very tricky calculation), and that their economic interventions are debatable (though people argue this either way). Finally, they may offer poor value for money.

    But to the total proposition – has the UN been a force for freedom in the world – I’d answer, on balance, yes.

  • Stuart, your originally said “you can claim that the `super-UN’ would be paternalistic only to free the people of countries from an oppressive (thus extremely paternalistic) government.” When I asked if you believe that you said yes, “the UN been a force for freedom in the world.” I had in mind your use of the word “only.”

  • As a first-order cut at the problem, I would expect that larger groups would be less biased and so paternalism from larger to smaller groups would make sense. However, I would expect the benefits to level off pretty quickly, so that most of the benefit would be achieved by the time you were up to a few dozen or a few hundred people. Beyond that I’d think we would see diminishing returns in terms of overcoming bias by consulting larger groups.

    However this naive analysis doesn’t seem to align too well with reality. There seems to be substantial divergence in policy opinions among even groups much larger than a few hundred people. This is probably due to cultural inhomogeneity. Groups composed of people with shared values and viewpoints are more likely to be biased.

    A better approach would be to select paternalistic guidance groups randomly. Select 100 random people from all over the world, ask their opinions on some issue, and then combine the results, maybe by averaging or voting. My guess is that you wouldn’t see much variation as you repeat this process.

  • Telnar

    Robin, the trick here in setting a criterion for how much is “enough” agreement on values is that some of the factors are subjective.

    Most people prefer to feel autonomous (a couple of studies on this are described in “Stumbling on Happiness”). Pushing decision making power one level further from themselves (to a world government instead of a national one) will reduce their perceived autonomy. In order to be willing to give up a portion of that autonomy, they will need to feel that they are getting an equally valuable benefit.

    National governments provide obvious advantages which can not as easily be provided by much smaller organizations, including military security against classes of threats (with the exact amount of security varying by nation) and enough economic diversity to create a pool of incomes large enough to self insure against types of small scale problems (depending on political philosophy, this insurance function may vary in extent and design, but the structure of a nation makes it possible to eliminate the option of free riding if one wants to).

    National governments also facilitate trade by creating a common currency and shared economic rules. This function (as well as network functions like maintaining roads and telecommunications) is not as clearly related to scale, because there is evidence that smaller states have been able to organize groups for these functions.

    To make accepting a world government with coercive powers over national governments attractive, there would need to be some similar benefit which arises as a direct result of scale. Paternalism is unlikely to be it, since that would only strongly appeal to those whose national governments are outliers likely to be intervened against.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Stuart, your originally said “you can claim that the `super-UN’ would be paternalistic only to free the people of countries from an oppressive (thus extremely paternalistic) government.” When I asked if you believe that you said yes, “the UN been a force for freedom in the world.” I had in mind your use of the word “only.”

    Ah yes, I see. And I definetly wouldn’t add the word “only” to what I said.

    To rephrase in a way that still may be relevant: “You could argue (and I would argue) that the current UN has caused a reduction in paternalism in the world” (though it has caused paternalism increase in some areas and paternalism decrease in others). So I still don’t feel the argument is symmetric (mainly because the `victims’ of UN paternalism are generally nation-states or governments, that I don’t feel deserve anything like the freedom accorded to individuals).

    A better way of phrasing the question would be: “Would you grant the UN (or something similar) powers to be directly paternalistic on you, as do national govenments?”

  • Stuart Armstrong

    And to answer that question, I would trust the UN to enforce certain paternalisms (say, global effect environmental standards) better than national governments, and vice-versa. If we are to have paternalisms, the best is to give the enforcement to those best positioned to do so – the reason we grant independent central banks the massive paternalistic power of setting interest rates ‘for our own good’.

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  • i want to know about the advantages of paternalism…can somebody here help me..i really want to know about the advantages … thanks…please asap..other than that can somebody here further explain about paternalism..