Philosopher king for the nanny state

Bowdoin College government professor Jean Yarbrough takes up the case of Bowdoin College philosophy professor Sarah Conly in the RCP column “Zero calories to zero population.” In her RCP column Professor Yarbrough responds to Professor Conly’s New York Times column “Three cheers for the nanny state,” defending Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to ban supersize sodas within his jurisdiction. I think it’s fair to say that Professor Yarborough gives Professor Conly three raspberries, on a scale of 1 to 3.

Conly is a philosopher for the Age of Obama, out to teach us that we are too foolish (i.e., cognitively inept) to take responsibility for our own choices. Despite what you may suspect, Conly’s column is lacking in any hint of irony or satirical intent. She is not out to raise questions about the nanny state utopia. She is out to serve as its philosopher king.

Professor Conly has devoted a whole book to the justification of “coercive paternalism.” Former Obama regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, you may not be surprised to learn, has warmly praised Conly’s book in the pages of the New York Review of Books. (Conly nevertheless goes too far for Sunstein.)

So what’s wrong with “coercive paternalism,” or its application to supersize soda? Professor Yarbrough comments:

Conly’s argument does raise important questions about liberty and dignity. For if we are so cognitively impaired that we cannot make wise choices about such minor matters, how can we be trusted with more important decisions? The logic of her argument points toward ever more intrusive government.

In her essay, Conly anticipates the objection that banning large size sodas is just the beginning; tomorrow these same bureaucrats will be telling you to “eat your broccoli, floss your teeth, and watch ‘PBS NewsHour’ every day.” The reason this won’t happen is because sensible paternalism is based on a “cost-benefit analysis; if it’s too painful, it’s not a good law.” Should we be reassured?

Conly’s own research agenda is frightening. On the Bowdoin College Philosophy Department website, Conly states that her next project is tentatively entitled “One: Do We Have A Right to More Children?” In it, she proposes to argue that “opposition to population regulation is based on a number of mistakes: that the right to have a family doesn’t entail the right to have as many children as you may want; that the right to control one’s body is conditional on how much harm you are doing others; and that nothing in population regulation entails that those who break the law can be forced to have abortions, or subject to any sort of punishment that is horrific. If population growth is sufficiently dangerous, it is fair for us to impose restrictions on how many children we can give birth to.”

“Coercive Paternalism” may start with soda, but its reach extends to matters at the core of our understanding of liberty and human dignity.

Like the storied liberals of Bill Buckley’s ideal type, Professor Conly wants to reach into your shower and adjust the temperature of the water. It’s only for our own good. At the least, I should think we ought to be able to take a look at the MMPI on Professor Conly and on those who assume responsibility for the management of our lives.

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