Mistrust of Individual Decision-Making

In my post on "Respecting Individual Decision-Making",  which to-date I consider my favorite post, I wrote:

As a capitalist and believer in individual rights, one of the things
I notice a lot today is just how many people do not trust individual
decision-making.  Now, I do not mean that they criticize other people's
decisions or disagree with them -- in a free society, you can disagree
with anybody about anything.  I mean that they distrust other people's
free, private decision-making so much that they want the government to

Interestingly, most people don't think of themselves as advocating
government interference with people's private decisions.  However, if
you ask them the right questions, you will find that they tend to fall
into one of several categories that all want the government to
intervene in individual decision-making in some way:  nannies,
moralists, technocrats, and progressive/socialists.  Though the
categories tend to overlap, they are useful in thinking about some of
the reasons people want to call in the government to take over parts of
people's lives.

I then spent a lot of time with examples from each category.  On Sunday, Keith Thompson in the San Francisco Chronicle (of all places) wrote an article about his disaffection with the left, which said in part:

A certain
misplaced loyalty kept me from grasping that a view of individuals as morally
capable of and responsible for making the principle decisions that shape their
lives is decisively at odds with the contemporary left's entrance-level view
of people as passive and helpless victims of powerful external forces, hence
political wards who require the continuous shepherding of caretaker elites.

I'm not sure that he and I are in exactly the same place, but we are both looking for allies who are consistent in their defense of classical liberal values and individual rights.

In a related post, Mickey Kaus, who I seldom read because he spends more time than I care on inside-the-beltway political tactics and media stuff, has an interesting related post about the left and trusting people to do right by their own lives.  Kaus resists permalinks, but the gist is:

Two good critiques of the ubiquitous, left-pleasing menace, George Lakoff--by Marc Cooper and Noam Scheiber. Oddly, neither attacks Lakoff at what would seem to be his central weak point, namely his conflation of politics and parenting--identifying "conservative" values with "the strict father" and "liberal" values with the "nurturant parent."

Is a country really like a family? Isn't that an idea with a ... checkered
history? A family is a relationship between inherently unequal,
not-completely-free people--parents and children. A country, at least
in one American conception, is the relationship of equal, autonomous
people. Using the family as the template for politics stacks the deck against social equality (the value I'd suggest as the liberal touchstone). For one thing, it lends itself all too easily to the condescending liberal notion of compassion,
an anti-populist idea if there ever was one. It's also horribly
misleading as a guide to practical policies--no wonder that when
Scheiber asks Lakoff about President Clinton's welfare reform, Lakoff
responds "Why did he have to do that? ... I still don't understand it
fully." In Lakoff's mind, Clinton wasn't changing the welfare system,
he was beating his family's children! Aren't there values that aren't
family values?

A good example of that in recent debate has been social security.  As I argued before:

Advocates for keeping forced savings programs like Social Security in
place as-is by necessity argue that the average American is too stupid,
too short-sighted, and/or too lazy to save for retirement without the
government forcing them.  Basically the argument is that we
are smarter than you, and we are going to take control of aspects of
your life that we think we can manage better than you can
.  You are
too stupid to save for retirement, too stupid to stop eating fatty
foods, too stupid to wear a seat belt, and/or too stupid to accept
employment on the right terms -- so we will take control of these
decisions for you, whether you like it or not.  For lack of a better
word, I call this intellectual welfare.

Given these fairly accurate descriptions of the state of liberalism in America, it is ironic that several weeks ago, Kevin Drum made the following observation:

Whenever I talk about the underlying principles that should guide liberals, as
I did a couple of days ago,
one of the ideas that always pops up is privacy
rights. In fact, it comes up so often that it strikes me that we're missing a
bet by not making a bigger deal out of it.

The reason, Mr. Drum, is that a true privacy right defined as you are considering it (in particular, one defined broadly enough to give women an absolute right to abortion) would undermine much of the left's statist agenda.   A true privacy right would force the government to respect individual free decision-making, and require that the government allow individuals to make what elites might consider are bad decisions for themselves. 

Does the Left really want broad privacy rights, or just a constitutional justification for abortion?  If they really want a general primacy of a woman's decision-making over their bodies, why do they support abortion yet oppose letting women choose breast augmentation or the use of Vioxx?  Why do the same leftist politicians that oppose parental approval or even notification for teenage abortion simultaneously support requiring parental permissions for teenagers to use tanning salons?  Why do they resist random searches for terrorists but support such searches to enforce seat belt laws?

As I wrote here,

A true privacy right would allow us complete freedom over who we sleep
with, what we do with our bodies, where we work, and what we pay for
goods.  And, not incidentally, how we choose to invest for our
retirement.  Both parties want the government to control parts of our
lives, so don't expect either Conservatives or liberals to be pushing
the privacy issue very hard.

The government is not our parent, not our boss, not our priest, and not our partner.  It is our servant.  Unfortunately, a large element behind creeping statism in this country is a desire by both left and right to "correct" individual decision-making, even when those decisions affect no one but the actor himself.


  1. Void Where Prohibited:

    I Believe ....

    Link: Kim du Toit - Daily Rant. After reading this at Kim du Toits site today I was compelled to comment.

  2. Dave Schuler:

    I think you'll find that the real Left doesn't give a damn about abortion. They do want to destroy the existing order and weakening the traditional family and sex roles are a good start to that end.

  3. Matt:

    The fact that "privacy" is code for abortion, "women" is code for abortion, "choice" is code for abortion (well, that one's not concealed anymore, but still...the word used to mean something much broader), and "tolerance" is code for "agreeing with us" feels very much like a deliberate attempt by the political class to turn near-universal (at least in America) values into wedge issues, and put themselves on the rhetorically stronger side. Hell, I'm for all of those things, but (although I oppose legal prohibition of it...mostly on the grounds of a belief in _meaningful_ privacy rights) I'm against abortion.

    Depending on who Dave considers to be "the real Left", he may be completely right or completely nuts. There certainly are a fair number of people in this society who fit his description, and virtually all of the Left's rhetoric in my lifetime has been cribbed from their playbook, if not actually dictated by them...which makes their influence massively disproportionate to their numbers. But to assert that most (or even many) of the people who think, act, and vote according to the Left's ideas necessarily subscribe to that nihlist worldview is, I think, delusional.