Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism

I know better than you.

Note: I do not own the book discussed below. I refuse to pay for it (it’s $95!). If any well-off reader has a copy he would like to donate, then I will do a full review. This review is based on the author’s and other reviewers’ summaries.

Here’s an argument for you:

People also have a lot of trouble dealing with probability.

Therefore, the State should look after them; it should tell them what to eat, what to wear, where they may live, which are proper thoughts and which improper, how to raise their children, with whom they may mate, and so forth ad nauseum. We should all lead the Life of Julia.

Convinced? Me neither.

What we have, in the new book Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism by academic philosopher Sarah Conly, is the combined product of preferential hiring, a lifetime of self-esteem-centered education, an ego run amok, a confusion of credential and knowledge, and a smugness and pomposity so colossal that they squeeze out all normal human emotion—a state of affairs guaranteed in a culture which prefers Safety Above All and which awards preposterous status to professors.

According to herself:

Against Autonomy is a defense of paternalistic laws; that is, laws that make you do things, or prevent you from doing things, for your own good. I argue that autonomy, or the freedom to act in accordance with your own decisions, is overrated—that the common high evaluation of the importance of autonomy is based on a belief that we are much more rational than we actually are. We now have lots of evidence from psychology and behavioral economics that we are often very bad at choosing effective means to our ends. In such cases, we need the help of others—and in particular, of government regulation—to keep us from going wrong.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit. Rank stupid over-confident unadulterated solid-gold bullshit. Sorry for losing my temper, but now that they have come out into the open and admitted what they’ve always believed and discussed within the confines of ivory towers, it’s time to say enough is enough. If they’ve broken cover, they must be convinced that the balance has tipped in their favor and people are ready for widespread release of Mike Bloomberg-San Francisco-City-Council-like nannies. (See this post for a parody on Conlyism.)

Cass Sunstein, the pathetic-comb-over sporting nudge who favors nudging people to perfection over paternalism, reviewed Conly’s book and provided the wisdom that people are bad at probability. They are indeed; but Sunstein forgets that he is people, too. We—you and I, dear reader, at this blog—have demonstrated time and again the epidemic of over-confidence rife within academia when it comes to all things human.

Small samples, over-reliance on dicey statistical procedures, outright fallacies, wild extrapolation, unrecognized biases, group-think and drunken bandwagon behavior, the absurd substitution of politics for evidence, the lack of validation, the love of theory, theory, theory. The willingness to overthrow centuries of tradition—the only reliable, time-tested guide to behavior we really have—for experiments in living, for nudging people towards the proclivities favored by those in power, for Change We Can Believe In for the sake of change, for the wrong, false, and stupid belief that whatever the academic desires, everybody else should also want.

Paternalism is the dumbest idea to emerge from government-slash-academia (and now, really, there is no difference between the two: government provides the money for academia, and academia provides the bodies for government). It sets up in the mind of the paternalists a horrible us-them world view. We are smarter than you. We are different. We are better. We are more human, or at least more humane. We know what is best. We are right because we agree with each other. The ultimate argument from authority.

“Hey Briggs, if you’re so smart, why doesn’t the government hire or listen to you?” Why would they? No government will hire folks like me who tell them they should not hire folks like me; that is, that will tell the government that it should shrink in size and authority, that will whisper in the ears of powerful that their supreme belief in themselves is unwarranted and overrated. Only flatterers can gain audience, not dissenters.

No, it’s too late. The dreaded tipping point, of which we hear so much, has already been breached. Individualism is dead. Long live the State!

Incidentally, Conly’s next is “tentatively titled One: Do We have a Right to More Children?” Guess what her half-witted, a-mathematical, guaranteed extinction answer is?

I first learned of this most depressing book from Wesley Smith.


Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism — 33 Comments

  1. There is no such thing as “The State.” There are politicians and bureaucrats. Any time someone says “The State” should do something, substitute “politicians and bureaucrats.”

  2. A very good historical overview of why this is happening is “From Dawn To Decadence” by Jacques Barzun:

    I just finished reading this book and in my opinion it is very good. The author gives a fascinating review of cultural history of the last 500 years with a minimum of personal opinion or political bias, except for the decadence part. I highly recommend it.

    I sometimes worry, Briggs, that your articles are making you unemployable.

  3. RE: “We now have lots of evidence from psychology and behavioral economics that we are often very bad at choosing effective means to our ends.”

    THAT IS UNDOUTEDLY A TRUE STATEMENT by the author. Of course,that’s been well-known & oft-observed even before psychologists & behavioral economists, etc. studied it.

    Henry Ford, auto industrialist, for example, observed this about lowly educated workers and tried to induce them to conduct their affairs responsibly, what with the prosperity workers achieved via the then new $5 day & their general lack of disciplin leading many to fritter away their money. Ford instituted a company Social Department … and ultimately the well-intended do-gooder effort flopped, controversially.

    That’s just one example–and a well-known one at that–of such a social experiement conducted on a somewhat captive, homogenous, and well-defined social group. A very good case study, in other words.

    So, one question is, why don’t our highly educated psychologists & economists, etc., do a full-fledged literature search of the policies they advocate TO INCLUDE PRIOR EFFORTS & WHAT WORKED & FAILED & WHY??

    Considering such prior efforts continually fail–and the historical record is very clear on the consistency of such failures–one cannot help but conclude that those espousing such an ideology [always limited by "what to do" not "how to do it well"] are not really interested in social improvement, instead, this is just pretense for a power grab [by political wolves], or, some [neurotic & insecure] people feel a need for being put under someone else’s control & desire someone to tell them what to do [these are willing sheep].

    The author at has something to say about that.

  4. “We now have lots of evidence from psychology and behavioral economics that we are often very bad at choosing effective means to our ends.”

    The good news is that this means that implementing this paternalistic state (is this sexist or what) isn’t going to work.

  5. Read the Intro of ‘Against Autonomy’ at: That’s from:

    By the way…LiveScience just reported that many psychological studies for the past decade lack merit (some of these probably form the basis of the author of ‘Against Autonomy’ arguments); see:

    Some excerpts from the LiveScience article could apply, almost verbatim to climate science:

    “By selectively excluding study subjects or amending the experimental procedure after designing the study, researchers in the field may be subtly biasing studies to get more positive findings. And once research results are published, journals have little incentive to publish replication studies, which try to check the results.

    “Outright fraud is probably rare.”

    “Because psychologists are so motivated to get flashy findings published, they can use reasoning that may seem perfectly logical to them and, say, throw out research subjects who don’t fit with their findings. But this subtle self-delusion can result in scientists seeing an effect where none exists,…”

    “…a 2006 study found that of 141 researchers who had previously agreed to share their data, only 38 did so when asked.”

    “But Nosek and his colleagues hope to encourage such sharing by making it standard practice. They are developing a project called the Open Science Framework, and one goal is to encourage researchers to publicly post their data and to have journals require such transparency in their published studies. That should make researchers less likely to tweak their data.
    “We know that behavior changes as a function of accountability, and the best way to increase accountability is to create transparency,..”

  6. Matt:
    Long time no talk.
    The piece I love is Sarah Conly’s suggestion on her facebook page for people to ignore copyright laws: “Don’t know (when the paperback is coming out)–meanwhile, get the library to get a copy and xerox it.” The mind boggles as to how she manages this behavior with her thesis. It would be interesting to hear how she conducts herself as a teacher.
    She has all the intellectual weight, Sunstein’s praise for her not withstanding, of someone who lives in an ivory tower and can safely ignore the consequences of her own bad advice.
    You are right, her follow on book should be even more pretentious, sanctimonious and detached from reality. There is a little fascist in us all, but in some it is sillier, uglier and more dangerous than in others.

  7. I would expect this person to be opposed – even violently – to Coercive Parenting. But applied to adults it’s acceptable?

    The triumph of sentiment over sense.

  8. Bernie,

    “The piece I love is Sarah Conly’s suggestion on her facebook page for people to ignore copyright laws”

    How would that be ignoring copyright laws? As the copyright owner she is giving people the right to make a copy.

  9. Rich: Interesting idea, that some people who are laissez-faire in their parenting are paternalistic in their politics. Certainly the reverse is common, people who are active in their parenting but libertarian in their politics.

    The former leads to a world of perpetual adolescents, people who never treated like children when they were children, but never expected to be fully self-reliant adults either. I prefer the latter, treating children like children and adults like adults.

  10. MattS: Presumably Sarah Conly’s publisher owns the copyright to her book, in which case she is advocating people take something which is not hers to give.

  11. On CBS this morning, Professor Roger Newman-Norlund of the University of South Carolina was reporting on a study that showed brain chemistry affects politics. He made the statement that is there’s one thing you can’t argue with, it’s statistics.

    I fear the nannies…

  12. MattS:
    My assumption is that CUP owns the copyright on the actual book. She could send her friend, of course,a draft as a pdf. I see her statements as being at the least ironic, if not disproving her thesis.

  13. Even if she owns the copyright, why does she think herself capable of knowing when we should ignore the wonderfully paternalistic copyright law? Does she also have a facebook status where she says, “This status is a lie.”? I’m so confused.

    Her blurb about her next book talks a lot about abortion. I wonder if she’s even considered that her first book could make a “great” argument for outlawing abortion? I think it’s fair to conclude that she’s for keeping abortion legal.

  14. Matt:
    It is a small sample of students … but the themes are consistent – funny and helpful. I had to chuckle at this one though: “She’s very funny, but her values seem frighteningly off-key with her topic (ethics). She said she drives a Porsche, which doesn’t strike me as meshing well with the utilitarianism to which she claims to subscribe.”

  15. Living by tradition is just another sort of paternalism–simply a better one, as Brigg’s suggests: time tested. Half of all people are below average. At least that many require some degree of paternalism. Some are so poorly disposed to live in freedom that they become wards of the state in prison. The trouble is half-assed paternalism, e.g., mandating the maximum size of soft drinks, whilst simultaneously subsidizing far more destructive pathologies (like out of wed-lock births, needless ER visits).

  16. “…government provides the money for academia, and academia provides the bodies for government…”
    Didn’t the government provide you, William, or your institute with the funds to be able to publish several peer reviewed papers? If so, should I question your research?

  17. MattL,

    “Even if she owns the copyright, why does she think herself capable of knowing when we should ignore the wonderfully paternalistic copyright law?”

    If she owns the copyright, then what she did isn’t suggesting anyone ignore copyright law but rather she is issuing a license to everyone to create one copy of her book.

  18. The sins of the ancien regime, duplicated almost completely.
    Contrary to the popular image they were very interested in improving the lives of the commoners. *As long as* it did not affect their privileges.

  19. I have come to realize that there is nothing I can say that Thomas Sowell hasn’t already said much better:

    “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.” Thomas Sowell

  20. Brendan,

    Just so. Before the Revolution Salons were abuzz with beneficent schemes. Who knew a select group would take them seriously?


    If you’d care to glance at my Who is WMB page you’ll see that I am completely independent. Even the class I teach at Cornell is paid for out of tuition money (rare these days, I know). All the work I’ve ever done in climatology and meteorology was self-funded (I can’t get the evil oil companies to give me the money they’re dishing out in vast quantities to other climate “deniers”). The money to pay for the medical experiments comes mostly from private sources (evil corporations), some patients’ fees (via a tangled path none but Br’er Rabbit knows), and even some government funds. But then I do not say, and never have said, government should not exist. I am no anarchist.

  21. “We now have lots of evidence from psychology and behavioral economics that we are often very bad at choosing effective means to our ends. In such cases, we need the help of others—and in particular, of government regulation—to keep us from going wrong.”

    As soon as the government demonstrates a small ability to make good choices to meet its own ends…

  22. I would like to meet one of these well paid climate deniers. I saw a post the other day that Big Something had paid Big Denial OVER $130 M. There were apparently something on the order of 200 groups that were paid out of that. I suspect it was over the last 10 to 20 years. The last time Big Al made such a claim it worked out to be about $50k / year per org. Maybe enough to keep one person in the organization “paid”.

    How they forget to do their math or to ask the inverted question. “How much did the AGW proponents get paid?” Hansen is reported to have received in excess of $1.6M for his efforts on top of his federally funded salary.

  23. I still argue that the entire lot of them need to be reintroduced to Zero. They also need to relearn unity (that is 1), and units.

    How many people manage to ignore the paternalism and live?

  24. One of the things I find disappointing and frustrating in decision-making experiments that document various types of biases is the apparent absence of analysis of those who knowingly or unknowingly resist the experimental manipulation. The same gap existed in the famous Milgram authoritarian experiments. Does anyone know why?Certainly there is little research to suggest that “experts” are significantly less likely to avoid the type of errors and biases that afflict the majority of us at some time or another.

  25. There’s actually been a paper examining the cognitive biases of regulators. I’s like to know if Professor Conly cited it. The next logical step is to examine the cognitive biases of people examining cognitive biases and then the cognitive biases of people examining the cognitive biases of people examining cognitive biases and so on…

  26. Victor,

    Stunning thrust. I also had it for six years when I was a Staff Sergeant in the Air Force.

  27. If government workers were omniscient, some how not subject to the same cognitve, emotional and ideological biases as the rest of us and not driven by self interest then Conly might just have a case. Since they are decidely not omniscient, potentially are even more biased than me and are very much like me in being driven mightily – though not exclusively – by self-interest, she has no case. Her utopia is my dystopia. George Orwell nailed it.

  28. The worst conceit is to imagine that the all-powerful state will favor only those policies that you personally like. Ming Dynasty china was the ultimate paternalistic despotic regime: everything was specified, including clothing, housing, occupations, arts. North Korea and Cuba are no doubt doing everything they do for the good of their people and those people are willing to die to escape. For long periods in ancient egypt the arts stayed exactly the same for centuries because the form of the arts was specified precisely. When the state decides that raw milk is forbidden (or some other hip thing) then suddenly the state must be resisted. urgh