Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Nature of Paternalism

In a recent editorial, Mark Steyn quotes this description of paternalism written by Tocqueville in the 1830's. I've never seen a more apt and eloquent characterization, and I particularly like how he differentiates what a father does from what a "paternal" state does:
Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle. It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood … it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in their principal affairs…

The sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform—through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way… it does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting on one's own … it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way: it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
It's also interesting to note that Tocqueville singled out the dangers of the supposedly modern discovery of "nudging" 170 years ago. Is it possible that during Cass Sunstein's years at Harvard and U of Chicago he never ran across Tocqueville's admonitions?

And while I'm not a proponent of "State's rights", I find much of the rest of the editorial worthwhile, particularly the fact that there is no innate desire for freedom, and that no society can be good without the active participation of good citizens.

PS Sorry about the "read more" at the bottom of the posts. Something has changed in blogger's handling of some HTML codes and I haven't figured out how to work around it yet.


Anonymous LH said...

Thanks for posting on this interesting article, Amit. I know this is a matter of style, not substance, but I have to say I particularly enjoyed reading the quote you exerpted. What absolutely beautiful and vivid really knew how to write in those days....

8:22 PM  
Anonymous LH said...

PS, of course, the substance of the quote was also insightful and good!

8:26 PM  
Blogger Amit Ghate said...

Hi LH,

I agree completely on the style. What I admire about the style is that while it is impressive on its own, it doesn't distract, but rather drives the point home even more forcefully.

9:03 PM  

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