17
Jan
12

A unified theory of contemptuous paternalism

I’m working from the premise that paternalists are primarily trying to (a) signal their power in order to reap the usual social benefits of being King Shit of Turd Mountain and (b) expand that power to reap more benefits.  What distinguishes paternalists from other varieties of petty tyrants is that paternalism is (seen to be) perhaps more sustainable: By selling the story that they have your own best interests at heart and are just trying to help, paternalists (try to) expand their base of support beyond the usual cabal of generalissimos in comically-oversized hats and aviator shades to a wide variety of special-interest groups, charities, and other Concerned Parties and Caring People.

Paternalism takes advantage of the Just World hypothesis: The idea that, by and large, people get what they deserve.  Risk factors get recast as moral failings.  Thus, fat people had it coming because they’re, de dicto, slothful and gluttonous; poor people had it coming because they’re ignorant layabouts; poor students had it coming because they’re frivolous Sybarites; and so on.  And the Law of Large Numbers being what it is, it’s always possible for the modern-day moral crusaders to find genuine examples of the above.

But you can’t validate a theory by parading a few supporting anecdotes, even if you’re a social scientist.  “Calories in > calories out” is a simple model of obesity, but even the New York Times has acknowledged its deficiencies.  A more complex model based around insulin (and probably leptin) resistance is likely to be closer to the truth — a better tool for predicting and treating obesity in most cases.  It’s probably a gross oversimplification of a systemic endocrinological phenomenon, but it’ll get us closer to the truth until we find a better model.

Here we run into the first problem for our paternalists.  The Just World model speaks to a fundamental cognitive bias, which makes it compelling to people who aren’t inveterate iconoclasts.  But more than that, it’s a symbol of authority, perpetually parroted by pompous paternalists as a ubiquitous reminder that they know best.  Ronald Bailey, reporting on one of Gary Taubes’s periodic expeditions to kick over anthills, notes:

In the campaigns against salt and fat, Taubes has outlined how committed and responsible scientists can look at the same ambiguous evidence and come to very different conclusions. That’s normal science. The problems start when such ambiguous s evidence is transformed into government policy. Unlike its scientific counterpart, the political process cannot accommodate ambiguity. The vote must be yes or no, not maybe. Sanford Miller, a former Food and Drug Administration staffer now at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, told Taubes that the salt controversy is the “number one perfect example of why science is a destabilizing force in public policy.”

(Emphasis added.)

What’s important to the paternalists isn’t that you get (or stay) healthy, wealthy, and/or wise — but that you recognize their model, hold it up as a gold standard, and try as hard as possible to adhere to it whether it works for you or not.  The authority of paternalists is predicated on the presumption that they already know what’s going on — because they’re Wise Technocrats, of course — and if they kept changing their recommendations every time some jumped-up nerd with a lab coat and a meta-analysis told them to, why, some of hoi polloi might start to question their august wisdom.

Another critical component to the Just World model, at least as far as the paternalists are concerned, is that it revolves around the denial of, and control of access to, pleasure.  Anyone who’s studied organized religion or D/s culture — or trained a dog — will tell you that carefully meting out hedonic rewards, on your terms rather than those of the recipient, is a fantastic tool for teaching submissiveness and compliance.  Hence, paternalists gravitate towards models that strictly regulate anything pleasant — no laptops in my classroom!  Eyes front!  Focus on the slides! — in favour of those that promote drudgery and toil with just a little carefully-metered indulgence built in — if you carefully restrict your salt intake and avoid red meat, you are permitted to have a glass of wine with dinner once a week.

This explains paternalist hostility towards new models that don’t fit the chastity-belt paradigm.  Low-carb diets are reviled by the FDA not merely because they contradict the “6-8 servings of heart-healthy whole grains” common wisdom that ConAgra and ADM paid so much for, but also because they permit hoi polloi to indulge in bacon and eggs for breakfast and a juicy steak for dinner.  The FDA bestows its dubious blessing upon nicotine gum and patches but drops the hammer on snus and e-cigarettes because the former, while they might not actually help you quit smoking, at least deny you the learned pleasure of inhaling nicotine — while the latter, which are known to improve health outcomes, allow smokers to continue their reviled habits.

So according to this model, the ideal policy for reinforcing the status and power of paternalistic technocrats has the following features:

  • Based on a common cognitive bias, such as the Just World phenomenon, and therefore “intuitively obvious”;
  • Unchanging in the face of countervailing evidence;
  • Predicated upon a steady state of drudgerous obedience punctuated by occasional hedonic rewards.

Sound familiar?

Update: Jonathan Adler points to yet another example: Bans on operating electronics during takeoff and landing.

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