Education v. Manipulation

In his New York Times column, David Brooks talks about the idea of “social paternalism” – the use of little “nudges” that push people towards the “correct” choices in their lives, e.g. moving unhealthy foods to the back whilst presenting the healthy at the front, or making organ donation the default option on a driving license enrollment form. Brooks writes:

The pro-paternalists counter that government is inevitably setting contexts and default positions anyway, so they might as well be aligned with individual and social goals. There’s very little historical evidence that there is an inevitable slippery slope leading from soft paternalism to hard paternalism. If companies are going to trick people into spending more on, say, bank overdraft fees, shouldn’t government step in to prevent a psychological market failure?

Brooks presents the anti-paternalist argument as that of the state overstepping its boundaries, of a slippery slope towards hard paternalism where the government begins to manipulate people into doing what they don’t want to do. This line of argument is dishonest because it already assumes that paternalism is good, and is merely arguing about an imaginary line after which it becomes “too much.”

There is a more obvious line of critique which Brooks fails to address. The very idea of state paternalism is a conviction in an inherent weakness of the human will. Instead of strengthening the mind and the will of the people through education, state paternalism weakens them by means of manipulation. After identifying a fault, the paternalist does not go on to fix the underlying problem, but rather, proceeds to treat the symptoms alone, further crippling the populace in the process by denying them the opportunity to exercise their own will. The obvious solution to unhealthy lifestyle choices is not manipulation, but education – both philosophical and physical – for where education empowers, manipulation enfeebles. Not even presenting it as an option betrays a complete disrespect for human dignity and human potential. If we cannot rise higher and overcome our problems through the strengthening of will and mind in each of us, should we surrender to an existence on life support?

August 2013