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Freedom and the Nanny State

Over at The Hedgehog Review—the journal of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture—Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie, responding to a recent piece by Richard Williams [1], argue that libertarians are overly concerned about government limits on personal freedom [2]:

Libertarian anxieties about the “nanny state” tend to focus on governmental incursions into freedom, usually identified with new legislation: Don’t tell me I can’t do what I want!, the thinking goes. Williams updates this concern to address the more subtle form that policy “tweaks” in light of behavioral economics might take: And don’t make me want what I don’t want!

This new fear is not just that government will limit the exercise of our agency but that it might also shape it in some way. Thus the complaint that a government that uses behavioral economics to tailor its policies will “treat you like a child.” What this assumes is that you are naturally an adult, someone who is in complete control of yourself, including your desires—absent government “nudging,” your selection when buying a car, to use Williams’ example, will be wholly innocent of influence from forces outside your own bare (and perhaps given) preferences. On this account, behavioral economics is not only a form of tyranny; it is also a form of creepy mind control.

But this anxiety rests upon a flawed and misleading picture of the human person, especially with regard to how desires are shaped. The fact is, our agency is always being shaped by external factors. We shouldn’t have needed behavioral economics to show us that we are not as rational and totally in control of our choices as we’d like. The homo economicus ideal of the rational utility-maximizing individual, impervious to outside influence, whose solitary choices and subjective preferences essentially construct his or her self, would have been laughed out of court by Plato, or Aristotle, or the Stoics, or Augustine, or Aquinas, or even Hume or Kant, had anyone been so clueless as to propose it to them. Modern thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Freud, and Bonhoeffer have also exposed the inadequacy of this picture of freedom. Even today, it doesn’t take a scientist to prove that such an account cannot make sense of the reality of our own lives. Not one of us grows to adulthood without being shaped by forces beyond ourselves, including our parents, our peers, our schoolteachers, and our cultural context.

I agree with Mathewes and McRorie that all of our choices are limited (the distinction between “shaping” and “limiting” is largely superfluous)—our bodies, our circumstances, our education, our brains, all have a limiting affect on our wills.

But not all limits are the same. Some are natural (my brain’s chemical balance–or lack thereof); others are established by habit or tradition (kissing hello and goodbye in France), the result of technology (the invention of the automobile), or other such things. In many cases, the limiting effect of the constraint is a secondary result of the activity or event. Cars were not invented so that I could not ride a horse to work in Houston, though this is one limiting effect of the invention.

While many governmental regulations are motivated—at least in theory—by a desire to do some good (limit pollution, for example, or make Americans more healthy), the limits imposed by such regulations are not a secondary effect but the very essence of the laws and regulations themselves. It’s what they do—limit certain activities. Mathewes and McRorie fail to make this important distinction.

Furthermore, while advertising may be one kind of constraint whose primary purpose (like regulation) is to limit (or shape) choice, there is an important difference here, too. Governments have far more power than individuals or corporations to make and enforce limits. Steve Jobs may have wanted all Americans to buy only Apple products, but the best advertising in the world could not have made this happen. But governments, if they so choose, can force us to buy certain kinds of light bulbs or health insurance.


Furthermore, history has shown that governmental limits are difficult to remove. This also makes them rather different from the shaping of advertising, which often only requires a click of the mouse or a press of the button on the remote to suppress.

All this to say, you don’t need to believe in an unconstrained free will to be concerned about the nanny state.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Freedom and the Nanny State"

#1 Comment By philadelphialawyer On January 29, 2014 @ 7:46 pm

I don’t even buy the first argument. Limits are not the same thing as attempting to shape desire. The former are hard and fast, the latter are inherently “softer.” A law forbidding such and such is a “limit;” an ad promoting such and such is an attempt to shape desire.

To my mind, even a law that subsidizes so and so is neither a limit, nor an attempt to shape desire. What is desired is the subsidy, and no one is trying to “shape” that, and what is being subsidized is being encouraged, but that is not the same thing as attempting to shape desire.

For example, a law giving me a subsidy if I upgrade the insulation on my house is not trying to “shape my desire.” I “desire” to pay less for the insulation job, and while that desire is being satisfied, it is not being created or “shaped.” Nor is the desire for better insulation being created or “shaped.” I already desire better insulation, I just don’t want to pay full price for it.

Even for something I arguably don’t want at all, like, say a car that runs on electricity, a subsidy does not shape my desire. The subsidy, again, satisfies my desire for money, it does not create it or “shape” it. And the car, or, more precisely, its electric nature, is not something I desire at all. I’ll go along with it, if the price is right, but that doesn’t make it any more desirable in its own right.

Of course, it is possible that, over time, I may find the electric car is not so bad. But then it will be the actual experience of using the electric car that has shaped my desire, not the initial subsidy.

#2 Comment By TomB On January 30, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

@ philadelphialawyer:

Okay, you’ve convinced me. But so what? So what, that is, that the state has not shaped your desires but “just” your actions? Is a state that feels it has the right to shape all your actions somehow of any less concern than a state that shapes all your desires? Why?

It seems to me then that the question isn’t the precise nature of what the state is shaping when it acts but whether we want limits on *where* it acts, and I think we do.

We just had a thread on this blog about the problems of hyper-moralism in our foreign policy noting that the dangers in same lead us to becoming involved in things we ought not be involved in, making it difficult for us to reverse direction and etc. and so forth. And I don’t see why this isn’t a concern domestically too so making it desirable to have some uncrossable lines.

Really might be called the question of how much socialization of human action is desirable/allowable. After all one can take what seems even the most inconsequential choice and say it has some societal impact and thus should be either regulated or “nudged.” Say … chewing gum. Boy it’s nasty stuff to clean up, nasty to put one’s shoe in it when improperly disposed of, and on and on.

I’d go pretty far from that end of the spectrum. Maybe the issue of motorcycle helmets is a good test case to argue over. Should we require helmets or even in some way “nudge” people to wear them? Beyond perhaps some public service ads noting the dangers I think I’m pretty much against.

#3 Comment By philadelphialawyer On January 30, 2014 @ 5:10 pm



“the distinction between ‘shaping’ and ‘limiting’ is largely superfluous”

is what I was disagreeing with.

I wasn’t making any general point about limits vs so called shaping desires, with one being OK but not the other, or that either are OK or neither. My main point, which you agree with, I think, is that my desires are not really being shaped, but being catered to, if only to “nudge” me to do something else. When I was a kid, if you gave me a dollar if I ate my spinach that did not “shape” my desire to eat spinach, rather it overcame my desire not to eat my spinach by my stronger desire for money.

Obviously, some limits are non negotiable (no rape, robbery, murder). While others are more dubious (pot). To me, the so called shaping stuff is more debatable, with some instances being OK but not others.

#4 Comment By TomB On January 30, 2014 @ 11:47 pm

@ philadelphialawyer:

Exactly right, I do agree with your main point.

#5 Comment By Labropotes On February 3, 2014 @ 10:37 am

People who argue that consumers are not rational actors assume that they themselves know what consumers want and what rational behavior is.

@ philadelphialawyer: The dollars for a subsidy must impose a disincentive to consume elsewhere. The “subsidy” for insulating your house should be the fuel savings to follow. If the fuel costs don’t capture society’s costs, it should be taxed to the degree that it does capture all costs. But a negative subsidy like this can be so large it effectively prohibits some activity. Sometimes the added cost is a fine or a prison sentence. Prices function as a means of communication between producers’ abilities and consumers’ desires. There may be reasons for tampering with that system but arguing that doing so isn’t equivalent to authoritarian control seems like sophistry to me.

#6 Comment By WorkingClass On February 3, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

As matters stand nanny marinates us in propaganda from birth making us blind and stupid. She incarcerates us in unprecedented numbers often for “crimes” that hurt none but possibly ourselves. Nanny is a heavily armed tyrant and she is above the law. For the last thirty years or so she has been impoverishing us for the enrichment of her sugar daddies. I know we are supposed to be talking about “nudging” but it has gone far beyond that.

Our constitution was supposed to protect us from tyranny. Nanny is a traitor. Libertarians would restore the rule of law putting nanny out of business. I am not a Libertarian. The free market utopia is just that. Objectivism is a fantasy for John Galt wannabes. But count me “overly concerned about government limits on personal freedom”. The only audible voices supporting liberty, justice and the rule of law seem to be Libertarian. I am obligated to support them because I know the fate of the working class absent the rule of law.

#7 Comment By philadelphialawyer On February 4, 2014 @ 4:40 pm


Again, that really doesn’t go to my point, as I was not saying that subsidy is always OK whereas prohibition is not. All I was saying is that subsidies do not involve “shaping” my desire.

I will say, though, that I do see a difference between a subsidy and a prison sentence. Perhaps both can be lumped imprecisely in the abstract as “authoritarian,” but in real life they are quite different, as are the governments that impose them. A reasonable government might subsidize home insulation, even if you don’t buy the economic argument for it. An authoritarian government will send me to Attica for not buying the insulation. I think that is not the same thing at all.

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 9, 2014 @ 8:58 pm

Cars were not invented so that I could not ride a horse to work in Houston, though this is one limiting effect of the invention.

The reason you cannot ride a horse to work in Houston is that you would be dropping horse apples in a crowded urban space to the detriment of everyone else’s public health and even life. This is the basis of sound government regulation: individuals acts can, at times, be hazardous or objectively obnoxious to the general community. Ditto for pollution control regulation: what you dump into the creek crossing your private property will enter the drinking water intake downstream for one or more of your neighbors.

I am definitely wary of the nanny state, but that doesn’t mean I want either anarchy, or free reign for plutocracy and social “darwinism.” Cigarette smoke in a restaurant interferes with my health and enjoyment of a meal… but consumption of alcohol by the person at the next table does not. Only if they get behind the wheel of a car, drunk, or if they vomit on my shoes (or worse), does it have an objective impact on me.

While I appreciate that smoking is not so pervasive as it once was, I firmly support INDOOR smoking lounges for those who do smoke, rather than sending our smoking fellow citizens and fellow humans across the street from their place of employment on a cold winter’s day if they want a few puffs.

I can accept traffic laws about using seatbelts, even about infants being in car seats, but I was enraged by the notion that everyone should be required by law to have a “booster seat” for a child under forty pounds. Every latest bit of research should not be translated into law by well-meaning but overeager Improvers Of Society.

Legitimacy of government regulation requires that there be a clear harm to others, to be curtailed by the regulation, and a sense of proportion (to which politicians are unfortunately allergic) as to just how far regulation can effectively reach.

I respect the moral argument for why abortion is the wrong choice, but I consider the law too blunt an instrument to make the choice for a pregnant woman. Reaching out to protect a new-born baby is simply a much more feasible and non-intrusive measure than reaching inside a woman’s body to do so. Not every evil can be remedied by the force of law.

Further, limits on the nanny state are primarily jurisdictional in nature. The government has authority to act, or it does not. Roe v. Wade can perfectly well be cited to protect a woman’s right to choose to carry her pregnancy to term, no matter what her family, social workers, or some dystopian nanny state think is best for society.