It’s been a long time . . .
Those who have access to my facebook page will see that it says I have been writing again, but they wouldn’t know it from looking at this blog. That is largely due to the fact that my writing, of late, has not been for public consumption . . . at least not yet.
But today I read something and simply couldn’t stay silent any longer. It came from one of my favorite daily reads, someone who seems to be going through a journey very similar to mine – my virtual friend, David Hayward, also known as “Naked Pastor.”
He wrote a post called “Kinds of Choice,” that literally made me almost come out of my chair with joy that someone else gets it . . . truly gets what I feel each and every day. There are so few people with whom I get this feeling . . .
His article, though he may not realize it, takes on a growing notion that has been making the rounds in political circles of late – the notion of “libertarian paternalism.” In the words of eminent legal scholar Cass Sunstein, libertarian paternalism is the notion that “private and public institutions might nudge people in directions that will make their lives go better, without eliminating freedom of choice.” According to Sunstein, “The paternalism consists in the nudge; the libertarianism consists in the insistence on freedom, and on imposing little or no cost on those who seek to go their own way.” Sunstein’s principle paper on the topic, written with behavioral economist Richard H. Thaler, is entitled “Libertarian Paternalism Is Not An Oxymoron.”
With all due respect to Sunstein and Thaler, yes it is . . . and Hayward’s post does an admirable job of explaining why.
Libertarian Paternalism is predicated on the notion that any system or institution will, as a matter of course, “nudge” those within it – either intentionally or unintentionally – in a given direction. Sunstein argues that
because default rules and starting points often matter, institutions can’t avoid nudging people — and hence can’t avoid a kind of paternalism, or at least a nudge. If 0% of take-home pay goes to savings, it isn’t because nature so ordained it.
He uses this logic to argue that, since systems “nudge” people anyway, they might as well deliberately do so in a desirable direction. To wit, “[An] example is the automatic enrollment plan, by which workers are automatically enrolled in a savings plan, but can opt out with no trouble and at no expense if they choose to do so.”
Hayward’s thoughts center on the system of the modern, organized church. Whether he intends it or not, they form a very effective counter-argument to Sunstein and Thaler’s philosophy. Hayward says,
What is being offered to the church today is a multitude of choices . . . we are being told that when we select one of these choices, we are making a free choice. And we feel as though we are free when we make our selection from among the several choices.
This is not perfect freedom . . .
Hayward goes on to distinguish quote the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in distinguishing between “formal freedom” and “actual freedom.” The former, he (Hayward) calls “Reinventing ourselves within the prescribed parameters.” This description perfectly captures what we are encouraged to do in so very many areas of life. Consider:
In education, we are encouraged to consider “school choice,” or even to (in an especially radical notion) homeschool our children [full disclosure: For those who don’t already know, I was homeschooled myself] . . . but only if we do so in a system where we literally turn our home into a school, complete with grades, class schedules, tests, and “approved” curricula.
In (American) politics, we are encouraged to “choose” our preferred candidate – from a pool of two nearly equally distasteful options.
In medicine, we are encouraged to consult a variety of medical experts and get a “second opinion” on what might be wrong with us in a given situation – but heaven forbid that we should do our own homework and self-diagnose a problem that can’t be discovered by an almighty Doctor with a lab coat and stethoscope who deigns to take ten minutes out of his busy day to read our lab charts and choose a diagnosis from a laundry list of possible maladies that roughly correspond to our symptoms.
In news, we are encouraged to read newspapers, listen to network news broadcasts, watch cable news shows, listen to news radio, or even be especially daring and get our news from our favorite network’s website. But far be it from us to bypass the gatekeepers at CNN, or the Associated Press, or the New York Times, and get our news from “alternative sources” . . . even when those alternative sources do a much better job of providing real news analysis (and in some cases, even original news reporting).
In religion, where Hayward concentrates, we are encouraged to seek out any one of an ever-increasing number of formal denominations with which to worship . . . but the one time that these institutions of religion will take a time-out from their interminable squabbles with each other and actually agree on something is when they hold the Bible over their heads and invent out of whole cloth a commandment nowhere found in its pages, demanding that we at least “go to church” somewhere.
These all fall under what Hayward calls “the illusion that this formal freedom is as good as it gets in life.”
And libertarian paternalists would love to convince you that such “formal freedom” is all you need. After all, if, like Hayward, you disdain to pick between equally undesirable choices . . . if you are not content with simply choosing from different options within a system, and would rather leave the system all together, then the likes of Sunstein and Thaler lose any ability whatsoever to control you short of the brute force they claim to wish to avoid.
Herein lies the problem. At the root of it all, a libertarian paternalist – or a teacher, a politician, a doctor, a news reporter, or a pastor – still believes in his or her heart of hearts that they know better than you do what is best for you. And because they know best, they should be allowed to compel you – either through brute force, or through subtle “choice control” – into doing what they already know is best for you. The systems and institutions in which they operate – schools, governments, hospitals, media outlets and yes, churches, are all designed with one all-encompassing principle on which their survival depends . . . the principle that they can continue in existence by doing you just enough good so that you don’t realize they’re expending all that effort in order to tell you what to think.
There is an infuriating arrogance to it all. At the root of all this, for the so-called “libertarian paternalist” is the very un-libertarian notion that he or she knows what is best for you and me, and that he or she will deign to look down, make the choice for us, and then guide us – ever so gently – toward that choice.
And it is in the realm of religion – Hayward’s forte – that we discover just how insidious this “soft paternalism” really is, for having laid down the weapon of brute force with which to accomplish their desired outcomes, they are left with the even more insidious weapon of shame. Educators, Politicians, Doctors, Newsmakers (a more accurate term these days than “News Reporters”), and Pastors are all – as a class – adept at using this weapon to demonize, marginalize or belittle those who are not content to pick from within their institutions one of a variety of bad options, and who opt to leave the system all together. My wife and I can personally attest to this in every single one of these five areas. Shame is a moral concept, but the amoral can use it just as effectively.
And it is all the worse for being so seductive. Those who wield shame as a weapon often do not realize they are wielding any weapon at all – witness Glenn Reynolds, an eminent libertarian blogger, saying that the solution to people who do not follow his desired course of action with regard to vaccinating their children ought to be “shamed” for it. Seemingly swayed by the same logic that persuades Sunstein and Thaler, Reynolds refers to this as the “libertarian solution” to what he sees as the problem of declining to vaccinate.
Just imagine . . . what if the solution to this or any other action that affects nobody but the person doing it was to simply do as you please, and let them do likewise??
This, to me, seems the essence of what Christ meant when he urged us to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”