paternalism as a trade-off

Triumph of the City

"The average man doesn’t want to be free. He wants to be safe." – H.L. Mencken, The Sage of Baltimore

"Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power." – Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack (1738; often paraphrased as "Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.")

Edward Glaeser makes an interesting argument for political centralization in The Triumph of the City. He’s aware that many of us feel that “[t]here is a lot to dislike in political systems that lodge too little power in local hands” but, he insists, “the right answer isn’t complete autonomy, either.”

Here’s why:

African Americans in the South wouldn’t have gotten civil rights if the federal government hadn’t intervened in state matters, and New York City got clean streets sooner because a Republican state senator led an investigation of the Democratic city government’s police department.

So far so predictable. Much of Glaeser’s book — which is wonderful and fascinating in many ways — consists of assertions that, when they are given any supporting argument at all, are supported by obvious post hoc reasoning. We’re all quite used to this sort of thing. Black Americans were slaves before the Civil War and were freed from slavery sometime (during? after? Many will say during, but the answer is after) after the Civil War, therefore the Civil War abolished slavery — in other words, a nationwide war was necessary to free the slaves. That example isn’t Glaeser’s, but I think it serves as a good model for his logic. When he does go beyond the post hoc logic of before:after::cause:effect, his evidence is of the purely statistical variety we’re used to from econometrics, where explicit theory is looked down on in favor of the implicit assumptions that drive statisticians to look where they look and find what they think is reasonable to find.

The book is full of this stuff, even just in the first quarter of the text, but what got me thinking was his implicit defense of the New Deal.

After reviewing the many virtues and benefits of urban life (which I mention in my post "relative poverty"), Glaeser addresses some of the common problems that cities have faced historically, including crime and disease. A common element of both problems is corruption within government. Murray Rothbard would point out that less government means less government corruption (and both Rothbard and Walter Block would also point out that, from a libertarian perspective, not all government corruption is evil), but Glaeser consistently takes the opposite approach: corruption at the level of city government can be addressed by the power of state government; corruption at the state-government level is best stamped out by a powerful federal (that is to say, central national) government:

[M]achine politics wouldn’t abate in most American cities until the New Deal brought better bookkeeping, which again showed that multiple layers of government can have positive effects.

It seems like the solution to corruption in federal government is obvious: world government. But how can we possibly deal with corruption at the level of a global central government? Are we supposed to believe that the power hierarchy will offer checks in both directions, both up and down the governmental pyramid? “When things work right,” Glaeser explains, “multiple layers of government — federal, state, and city — can check each other, especially when different parties hold power at different layers” (emphasis added). But the only examples Glaeser offers are of the more-central layers of government checking more-local governments. And if recent history is any guide, the power needed by a more-central government to crush corruption in a more-local government is precisely what disallows local government from acting as a check on central power. (The Jeffersonian principle of nullification is called the “spirit of ’98” — that’s 1798. That’s how long it’s been since there was a serious local threat to central authority in the United States.)

What intrigues me, however, is not the question of federalism or subsidiarity but that of paternalism, which Glaeser only brings up in passing during his assertions about central authority solving the problem of local corruption:

Typically, corruption decreases as education levels rise, because citizens become less dependent on the informal safety net that machine bosses provide and better able to organize opposition to corruption.…

The old model of machine politics had local bosses doling out jobs and favors to their constituents in exchange for votes. An immigrant family who supported the machine could rely on help getting a young man a job or aid during a fire or a turkey on Thanksgiving. Those services were provided from city coffers overseen by machine bosses. The New Deal vastly strengthened the federal safety net and weakened the power of local politicians to buy support with occasional handouts. To get money, local leaders had to scrupulously document their cash flows. The era of the boss became the age of the bureaucrat.…

This reminds me of a point I often hear made about the end of feudalism.

It’s easy for us in the post-feudal, post-industrial world to think of the detritus rolling downhill in the Middle Ages: the king subjugated his barons; the major nobles repressed the minor nobles; all nobles tyrannized the peasants; peasant men oppressed their wives; and peasant women probably beat their children.

I suspect there’s plenty of truth to that picture, however incomplete it may be.

But the end of feudalism, according to that model, should have been a pure benefit for the poorest peasants. Yet many historians emphasize that the feudal “social contract,” however uneven and involuntary, was not entirely one-sided. The nobles did have obligations to their peasants: they were supposed to protect them from invading armies and from bandits; they could not remove them from their land and had to respect the "commons" where the peasants could hunt, trap, fish, and graze their sheep. Much of this may have been observed more in theory than in fact, but it probably wasn’t entirely a dead letter.

However negligible the benefits may seem to us today, it was better in certain material ways to be a dirt farmer under a typical feudal lord than it was to be a tenant farmer under the new post-feudal class of landlords. (It’s important to note at this point that the early-modern landlords were not analogous to most “landlords” in the modern West. They didn’t build or buy property and rent it out voluntarily; they used political privilege to claim, as personal private property, land that they had never homesteaded nor acquired voluntarily from rightful owners. Instead they took property that a peasant family may have been farming for generations and told the family they now had to pay rent or vamoose. The idea of peasants having to pay their lords wasn’t new; but what they had previously gotten in return had been more than the temporary privilege of staying put.)

Tammany Hall game coverSimilarly, we outside the urban life of machine politics and the 19th-century American immigrant experience can look at Boss Tweed and the Tammany Hall Democrats and say that the favors with which they rewarded their voters were a paltry distribution of stolen goods. But, as with price theory, we need to be able to think on the margin: a poor immigrant family gains nothing tangible by voting for the Republican candidate. He probably won’t win and if he does, it probably won’t make any noticeable difference to the voting family’s well-being. But a vote for a Tammany Democrat can mean the difference between an employed relative and an unemployed relative, or between a special holiday meal and the usual gruel. Of course the big Boss is raking it in, and of course it isn’t honest money, but what in their experience has ever suggested it could be otherwise? His honesty is not their concern. Their own marginal condition, marginally better or worse without the Boss’s help, is the only thing it makes sense to think about when it comes time to vote.

More recently, millions of Russians welcomed the death of the Soviet system, but before long, many of those millions were waxing nostalgic about the good old days under Stalin, et al. The breadlines were forgotten. What they remembered was the bread.

What does any of this have to do with the future of freedom, or the future of the city, for that matter?

Glaeser’s project is a consequentialist one: he wants to show us how cities continue to be a boon to humanity, both the richest and poorest of us. Like Ludwig von Mises, he assumes we’re all seeking the same thing: the greatest good for the greatest number. Like Mises, he sees the solution in robust, active, highly connected markets. Unlike Mises, however, he sees a critical role for the state well beyond the protection of individual rights. An enlightened government (filled with men and women who have read his book, no doubt) must institute policies against the shortsighted preferences of the political process and for the long-term benefit of all of us. For Glaeser, this means central authority and central planning, if not of the market itself then of such foundational issues as public health and sanitation, policing, and (he hints) a “safety net” for the poor, e.g., welfare. (Nowhere does he address the damage done to the urban poor by, for example, minimum-wage laws or the so-called safety net itself.)

Mises and Glaeser would agree on the ends and disagree on the means. For Mises, the means to the greater general welfare are greater individual liberty and the security of private property, especially capital. For Glaeser, paternalism is part of the means. Getting rid of the Boss Tweeds through the reins of central government may be trading one form of paternalism for another, but he sees the result as less corruption and more efficient government, and presumably the greater health and wealth of the citizens.

For those of us whose goals are more radical and whose worldview is based more on principle and individual rights — and who see ever greater central authority as antithetical to our goals — I think the lesson is in what feudalism, machine politics, and post-Soviet nostalgia can teach us about why people accept the trade-off of paternalism.

The Day the Universe ChangedThe first few generations of industrial labor may have suffered in the earliest factories, “Nevertheless,” James Burke observes in The Day the Universe Changed, “the new urban workers were better off than they had been in the country. Even in times of depression they did not return to their villages.” And it is precisely by our choices that we demonstrate our preferences. But many of these workers still told themselves that they were worse off, just as some Russians in the 1990s spoke with longing for the days of Stalin. We long for paternalism when we long for security — not just for well-being but for a sense that we can rely on that well-being. Thus, as Glaeser writes, “corruption decreases as education levels rise, because citizens become less dependent on the informal safety net that machine bosses provide.”

I’m not saying that education is the answer (although it’s a critical part of the answer). I’m saying that people will continue to opt for paternalism, whether they recognize it as such or not, until citizens become less dependent on the sense of safety the state provides — until, that is, the perceived costs of paternalism outweigh its perceived benefits. Apparently we’re not there yet.

Wendy McElroy said to me in a recent email, “I think a new form of libertarianism is emerging … one that is decentralized, non-political, practical and almost self-help. I like it.”

Maybe the self-liberation subset of libertarianism is the answer: provide people with the concrete alternatives to paternalistic government. Maybe it’s even the first step toward teaching them the more abstract issues that so many libertarians are used to focusing on.

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7 Responses to paternalism as a trade-off

  1. Mike Reid says:

    The anticapitalistic sociologist Emile Durkheim had a related idea of “anomie,” by which he meant something like “normlessness.” He argued that as the web of regulations by guilds and governments fell away and laissez-faire rose, people lost their sense of being guided and shaped by clear expectations and limitations. The resulting lack of functioning social norms — anomie — made a man “aspire to everything and be satisfied with nothing,” leading to increased suicide rates.
    There’s this sense in his work that things were better when we couldn’t choose for ourselves. It’s not quite nostalgia for Stalin, but it’s something in the same vein.

  2. Scott Lahti says:

    “Glaeson explains … the only examples Glaeson offers … the peasants could hunt, trap, fish, and graze there sheep”

    Did Boss Marcus (I’ll wave the free turkey next Thanksgiving and the patronage proofreader’s job in the Charlottesville ward in the interests of good-[no-]government reform) mean: *Glaeser* and *their*

  3. Scott Lahti says:

    “… before long, many of those millions were waxing nostalgic about the good old days under Stalin, et al. … some Russians in the 1990s spoke with longing for the days of Stalin … [Reid] It’s not quite nostalgia for Stalin …”

    Timely thoughts, indeed:

    Joseph Stalin More Popular In Russia Now Than At End Of Soviet Union, Finds Carnegie Survey

    • Scott Lahti says:

      Putin urges Soviet-style fitness program, with actor Seagal
      President Vladimir Putin reached back to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s era for a plan to improve Russians’ physical fitness on Wednesday, and appeared with film actor Steven Seagal at an event aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles among young people … “I think it would be quite appropriate to recall the positive experience of past decades when the so-called GTO, Ready for Labour and Defence, was in use in our country,” he said. The GTO mass physical training program was introduced in the 1930s under Stalin.

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