Saturday, February 27, 2010

Paternalistic Intervention: Part 1

My friend Bill inspired me to clarify my thoughts on the libertarian stance toward paternalism. The word “paternalism” is rooted in the Latin noun “pater,” or father. Today, the word paternalism signifies an act of intervention whereby one party, a well-meaning “benefactor,” violates the liberty of another person(s), a “beneficiary,” in order to provide an unwanted benefit. Benefits can be classified either something generally considered to be good, or the removal of something bad, a harm. The overwhelming majority of paternalistic interventions involve the removal of harms. Therefore, many (if not most) acts of paternalism seek to limit risk-taking by intended beneficiaries.

First of all, two parties are involved in paternalistic interventions: a beneficiary and a benefactor. So let’s break down this dyadic relationship a bit more. Beneficiaries and benefactors can be either individuals (individual paternalism) or groups of individuals (group paternalism). One important for of group paternalism is “state paternalism.” Examples of state paternalism include seat belt laws, drug laws, etc.

Paternalism involves the imposition of an unwanted benefit by a benefactor. On the face of it, this sounds absurd. After all, human beings tend to want benefits and not want harms. So the idea of an unwanted benefit seems irrational. That’s why RATIONALITY plays a key role in justifying paternalistic intervention. But in the real world, benefits and harms are subject to a certain degree of social construction. Thus rationality and social control tend to often overlap. We believe that there are some risks that are irrational. Why would any rational person choose to: kill one’ self, take mind altering recreational drugs, live homelessly out on the streets, refuse chemotherapy, not wear seat belts when driving etc. So the concepts of both rationality and HARM are central to paternalism.

But paternalism is only morally problematic in a social structure that places value on both PERSONAL LIBERTY and BENEFICENCE. Conversely, in cultures that place little or no value on personal liberty, or routinely value beneficence over liberty, paternalism is not regarded as problematic. Indeed, many cultures defer decision-making to husbands, parents, religious leaders, and/or government. However, in most of the Western world, especially, the United States and Europe, personal liberty has at least some value, and therefore, the violation of one’s liberty requires moral justification.

Insofar as paternalistic intervention violates the will of an intended beneficiary, it requires the benefactor to employ a certain degree of COERCIVE FORCE. Here the presumption is that if you do not want the benefit that is being offered, but you do not pose any resistant force to its imposition, it is not paternalistic because no coercive force was required.

And finally, we can explore the nature of interventions. Since all interventions involve costs and benefits, the underlying feature of paternalism is that the benefits offered by intervening outweigh the costs for not intervening. Call it REDOUNDING GOOD. Thus, there seems to be an empirical component involved in paternalistic intervention: either the intended beneficiary will, in fact, benefit from the intervention or they will not.

So we’ve established that there are five dimensions to paternalistic intervention:

1.) The presence or risk of an identifiable HARM.

2.) The value of PERSONAL LIBERTY and BENEFICENCE and the underlying assumption that individuals ought to be able to take at least some risks without being subjected to well-meaning benefactors.

3.) The RATIONALITY of the intended beneficiary and benefactor and/or the risks involved.

4.) The use of COERCIVE FORCE by benefactors

5.) The assessment of costs and benefits, or REDOUNDING GOOD of the intervention.

I’ll explore each of these dimensions in detail in subsequent blog entries.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Haiti: A Libertarian View of World Hunger

With some justification, rights-based libertarians have been accused on being chronically insensitive to world hunger. Actually, the issue is much more complex. Take, for example, the ongoing food distribution debacle in Haiti. It seems that much (if not most) of the food aid being funneled into earthquake ravaged Haiti has been plagued by bribery, corruption, and theft perpetrated by gangs of predatory males. (This was true even before the eathquake!) To combat male-dominated food piracy, and maldistributed food aid, relief agencies have been issuing food coupons to women, who in are expected to exchange them for food and distribute it equitably among men, women, and children. Unfortunately, to the surprise of profoundly naive distributers, women are now being robbed by men of their coupons and food rations before they even get home with the goods. As reported by USA Today, these same women are being raped and victimized by these predatory males in the re-settlement camps.

Back in the 1970s, Neo-Malthusians like Garrett Hardin pointed to the intergenerational "ratchet effect" that invariably plagues food distribution. You feed one generation, they have more babies, population increases, and your moral obligation to feed them increases geometrically. But there is also an intrageneration "ratchet effect." In order to feed the hungry, distributers must first clear the rubble out of the streets, then police the roads for gangs that demand bribes for safe passage, set up distribution centers, make certain that the food gets to vulnerable women and children,and then police the camps where the Haitians are living to make sure that women and children are not victimized by men on the way home or at the lawless camps. In other words, at least in Haiti you cannot realistically expect to "feed" anyone without monitoring and enforcing a semblance of "rule of law" and, ultimately, without rebuilding their nation from the bottom up.

If you are a utility-minded libertarian and you want to spend your hard earned money to feed starving fellow humans, is Haiti a good place to send your money, or are there other countries where you'd get more "bang for a buck?" Of course, once the intragenerational ratchet effect subsides (if it ever does), then what? When is the job finished? How long will it take to teach Haitian males not to advance their individual and collective well-being through violence, threats, thievery, and corruption? If you expect the Haitian government to soon rise to the occasion, forget it. It is too busy prosecuting misguided missionaries caught trying to smuggle a few children out of a Malthusian quagmire.