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July 15, 2005

Why I Am a Utilitarian...

The witty, erudite, and highly intelligent Julian Sanchez convinces me that I would be insane were I to prioritize liberty over utility: that I am right to be a utilitarian:

Reason: Save Me From Myself!: Parentalism and the fear of freedom: I had not expected to see non-smokers attacking the ban on principle locked in debate with smokers who, between languorous puffs and grey exhalations, welcomed it as a means of reducing their own smoking. If the argument... sounds strange, it is not, at any rate, rare. When New York City was mulling its own smoking ban, one young "man on the street" interviewee told the Village Voice: "I'd actually be all for it, which is odd since I am a smoker myself. I think it might make me smoke less. The increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes hasn't stopped me from smoking. I just have friends who come up to visit from Florida bring cartons for me."...

We are all, sometimes, afflicted with akrasia, those attacks of weak will that lead us to satisfy fleeting desires at the expense of our own acknowledged long-term interests. Like Ulysses lashed to the mast, we empty the pantry of sweets, hire pricey personal trainers, join rehab groups, or loudly announce an intention to start working on that novel, knowing how embarrassed we'll feel if there's no progress to report when a friend asks how it's coming.... There may even be ways for government to help us combat akrasia without overly restricting our freedoms.... [P]hilosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah offers... the example of the "self management card." When we go shopping for smokes or fatty foods or alcohol or a dose of heroin, Appiah imagines, the store is required to swipe our cards to ensure we haven't gone over a self-imposed limit.... Normal and necessary as these akrasia-countering mechanisms may be, though, they may also be symptoms of what Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan has dubbed "parentalism."... Parentalism... emerges when we begin to suspect that we ourselves are not competent to make our own choices, to yearn for someone to relieve us of the burden of choice.... The thought is not novel to Buchanan. Jean-Paul Sartre described the "anguish" that comes with our realization that we are "condemned to be free." Marxist psychologist Erich Fromm diagnosed the totalitarian movements of the 20th century as symptoms of an urge to "escape from freedom," from the displacement of a feudal world in which identities were given--a place for everyone, and everyone in his place--with a capitalist order that made who we were and what we were to become seem dizzyingly contingent....

[T]he true parentalist wants to escape not just the burdens of the act of choosing, but the responsibility for making a poor choice. Voluntary market mechanisms for filtering or restraining choice... allow us only to defer responsibility, not avoid it.... But perhaps a more important problem with parentalism is that it licenses what Sartre called "bad faith," the attempt to avoid the burdens of responsibility by denying our own freedom. Classical liberals may even inadvertently encourage this by speaking of responsibility as "the other side" of freedom, as though it were the spinach that had to be cleared away before getting to desert. But is that really so? When we make trivial choices--what to have for dinner, what movie to see, which CD to buy--what we most value is the freedom to select without constraint from many options. Yet when it comes to our most central choices--what kind of person am I to be, what work will I find rewarding?--we may take as least as much satisfaction in the feeling of responsibility for our choices, in knowing that we have shaped a life that is ours even when we have chosen badly.

Classical liberals have become good at explaining how the market order they favor promotes freedom and happiness. They have been less adept at explaining why--at least past a certain point--people ought to want that freedom, which when genuine is always at least a little frightening. In the face of the parentalist impulse, we may need to develop the case that our bad choices, the choices that make us unhappy, are as vital and precious as the ones that bring us joy.

My mind explodes when I read Julian's command to "take as least as much satisfaction in the feeling of responsibility for our choices, in knowing that we have shaped a life that is ours even when we have chosen badly." It is the libertarian version of the old communist story:

Speaker: After the revolution we will all eat strawberries and cream.
Worker: But I don't like strawberries and cream!
Speaker: After the revolution you will eat strawberries and cream--and like it!

Posted by DeLong at July 15, 2005 11:47 AM