Cass Sunstein's thoughtful article on means and ends of governmental positive reenforcement
Cass Sunstein proves to be a wiser man than I have previously given him credit. He has written, in the NY Review of Books, a compelling review of a new book that ponders whether we should always default to the "let people decide for themselves..." position in the manner of when we were 14 years old and completely convinced by John Stuart Mill. The book reviewed is Sarah Conly's "Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism," which strikes me as an unfortunate and unduly provocative title that I doubt she was fully comfortable herself in using (coercive editors and marketers at Cambridge University Press, I suppose...:-)).
I was most impressed with Dr. Conly's formulation about coercive means to an autonomous end. One example of coercive means to an autonomous end that Sunstein surprisingly does not mention in his review (Conly mentions it, per my glance at her book at Amazon.com) is the Social Security and Medicare payroll tax. If we did not have the automatically required and therefore coercive Social Security and Medicare payroll tax, the chances are very high that most elderly in our nation would be deeply mired in poverty and the consequent despair that comes with economic poverty.
Where Sunstein happily surprised me is with his skepticism toward NYC Mayor Bloomberg's call for banning soda from food stamp purchases and Sunstein's outright rejection of Professor Conly's policy prescription of banning smoking cigarettes. I would have thought Sunstein, from some of his previous writings and musings, would have supported these things. Myself, I am also opposed to such draconian solutions in those particular instances, but do support the payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare, and also support regulations on the size of drinks and portions in restaurants. On the latter, I don't see how we would suddenly live in an oppressive society if the largest drink size I can order from McDonald's was the same as it was back in 1973.
One theme I wish Sunstein found more time for in his review would be the importance of stating that once we recognize the principles involved, we should find their tensions, their limitations and move on to a rigorous analysis of factual information regarding a particular or specific public policy. When we recognize the tautologies and tensions that exist with every formulation, it helps us regain reality and not confuse metaphors and theories with reality.
In any event, it is a great essay review and helps us understand the book being reviewed and moves the debate forward.