Disagreement Case Study – Balan and I

David Balan and I exchanged a few posts here over the last few weeks on paternalism, and we had a one hour debate a week ago (audio here).   David and I are similarly expert by conventional measures, so this is more disagreeing with an equal than disagreeing with a superior.  And being active contributors of Overcoming Bias, we are both well aware of many signs of bias.   David is employed by a U.S. agency much of whose policies are justified via paternalism, while I am employed in part because of an academic publication that leaned against paternalism.  So we have similar potential for self-interest biases. 

David seems to disapprove of most policies in most societies today and through history that have been justified on paternalistic grounds.  These include parents choosing kids’ careers and spouses, bans on alternative religions, political groups and sexual orientations, rules about who can practice what professions, and limits on the freedoms of women, ethnic minorities, and lower classes.  So if he could only choose in general between paternalism or not, I think David would choose not.   

But David considers the rulers of our society, our democratic majority and the opinion elites they follow, to be much better paternalists than the rulers of all those other societies.   By "our society" David means the United States and nations with similar paternalism policies.  The main evidence David cites for the superiority of our ruling class is that we are the most prosperous society in human history.

Paternalism is a disagreement between a group with power and a group without.  The group without power will not take advice from the group with power, so the group with power forces their advice.  Now I could be tempted by arguments that ask me to believe that groups with power tend in general to be correct in their paternalism.  For example, one might argue that most societies have correctly limited the choices of children, because children are objectively more irrational than adults. 

But David asks much more of me.  Since the rulers of all those other societies would be unlikely to grant our superiority as paternalists, to agree with David I must take his side in disagreeing with all those other rulers, in addition to taking his side in disagreeing with the people whose choices our paternalism limits.  And David asks me to believe the happy coincidence that even though in most of history paternalism was on net bad for the society that was the most prosperous up to then, we just happen to live in the age where the paternalism of the richest society (but only them) is finally on net good.   

Since others disagree here, I must disagree with someone.   I can agree with David to doubt most paternalism in history, but I am wary of the standard bias to favor one’s own society in evaluations.  Our wealth doesn’t seem to depend clearly enough on our paternalism for me to conclude much about our paternalism from our wealth.  I am thus reluctant to empower one side in our paternalism disputes to force its view on the other side.  So I tentatively side with those without power in all societies, including our own, and reject the claim that the powerful of our society are an unusually superior "master class." 

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