Several people are blogging about this new book, Justifying Coercive Paternalism, which argues in favor of restricting people’s choices because they aren’t good at choosing what’s best for them. It doesn’t seem to me worth the trouble; the issue is simple. To believe that you are wise enough to rule another because that person isn’t making what you consider to be the right choices is to contradict the basic principle of equality. As Lincoln said, “You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden.”
The argument for freedom has never been that people, left to their own devices, will always make the right decisions (although they seem to make good choices more often than you might expect). The argument has always been that the individual is less bad at choosing for himself than he is at choosing for others. If Prof. Conley is right that people make unwise choices for various reasons, and “don’t reason very well,” when they deal with their own lives—when getting it right really matters to them—then that’s all the more reason to expect that they will make unwise choices when dealing with the lives of others, when it does not matter that much. The only way to escape that dilemma is to deny the principle of equality and to assume that we have found angels in the forms of kings—or administrative agencies—to govern us.
The true mystical secret of Zen ideas in particular is that they’re stupid. California is pretty stupid, too—which means that warmed-over takeout Zen has done a good business there. Consider, just for instance, the success of the Nichiren Shōshū sect: Its promoters have melded simplistic Zen ideas with materialism, and throughout the ’80s, suburban Angelenos gathered in living rooms, all chanting for happiness and/or a new car. It worked, too: Lots of them did eventually get new cars.