Two Syllogisms about Government Action

This post began with an idea of a simple syllogism (A) and possible objections to that syllogism. Ultimately, I came to see that the objections (likely) succeed but that made me realize my core idea was really my standard anti-paternalist view.

(A) The syllogism

1. Government actions entail coercion.

2. Coercion entails that someone is made worse off.

3. A move is Pareto optimal if someone is made better off and no one is made worse off.

4. Government actions cannot be Pareto optimal.

(B) Discussion

I wanted the argument in (A) to be sound. I think it’s not, because premise 2 is (likely) false. Someone might be coerced and yet be better off. How might someone be coerced and yet better off? The intuition behind premise 2 is, after all, straightforward: if you have to coerce me to X its because I didn’t want to X, so when I do X, I am worse off. (I don’t think this entails a completely subjective conception of the good; more on that below.) Put another way, X is against my interests. We might add that most of us have an interest in choosing on our own regardless of what we choose and that interest itself is set back when we are coerced. Nonetheless, it’s a common idea amongst political theorists that one can be coerced and better off.

One standard reason it is suggested that people can be coerced and yet better off is that we (at least some of us) actually want to be coerced, via taxation, to pay to help others and so when we are coerced it is really only superficially coercion. In fact, though, it’s really consensual (or something we would consent to if we thought about it). Those that make such claims add that most of us want to be charitable, but realize that we may fail to be if left to our own devices, so we should be coerced into giving “charity.” (Scare quotes as this is unlike genuine charity, which entails that one gives of one’s own accord to help another.) Typically, the claim is not that we merely want to be coerced individually, but that we want everyone (or everyone who can afford it) to be coerced in the specified way, so as to solve a collective action problem—we want ourselves and others to contribute to the solution to that problem but worry we won’t when given the option. Whether that addition is included or not, the point is that then when we are coerced to provide aid to others, we actually get what we want and so are better off, not worse off. We are better off because we want to live in a world where people are taken care of—where people do not starve, die of easily treated illnesses, are educated, treated justly, etc. I don’t find this persuasive. It would only hold, I assume, for those that have a particular psychological makeup.

A second possibility is that one can be better off even though coerced if compensated. The idea here is that while one is made worse off by the coercion—at least because one is prevented from doing what one would choose (our interest in doing what we wish is thwarted)—but is somehow compensated for the worsening enough to make one better off. There are two general ways this can happen. First, though being taxed would set back one’s interests, the government could provide you a direct benefit that (more than) compensates for the loss. This seems unlikely since the direct benefit provided would require further resources, meaning the government would have to coerce still more people in order to provide the benefit. The problem would thus simply be pushed back a step—are the people coerced to pay for the new benefit also better off even though coerced?

A final (third) possibility is that we can be better off even though coerced, because of (a) the objective component of well-being and (b) indirect benefits. This is plausible: one might be better off because although one was not allowed to choose how to spend one’s money, one received membership in a better, more educated and more just society than one would have otherwise been in. The indirect benefit here is not, at least initially, monetary. There is simply great satisfaction in living in a more educated and just society and though such benefits are not easily quantified, they surely matter. And, we can add, it is likely that a more educated and more just society would be more economically advanced, so the indirect material benefit—measurable—might be quite significant. (Those advocating the first idea above might treat these as things rational agents know and accept, so consent to.) Indeed, we should recognize that people often have subjective interests in things that are bad for them and it’s not unreasonable to think that there are objective interests that matter more. I don’t allow my child to eat only ice cream and cookies even though that may well be what he prefers, for example. Letting him indulge his subjective interests would leave him leading a worse life than he could—as an objective matter.

I tend to think an adequate account of the good must have an objective component like that just roughly articulated. That there is an objective element of well-being and that such an element may be better achieved with coercion than without, however, does not settle the issue. At least, it doesn’t for anyone that rejects paternalism. The core issue, after all, is not whether it is permissible to coerce children (to eat well, rest, attend to their hygiene, do their school work, etc). We are concerned about government coercion of rational adults.

As frequent readers likely realize, I reject paternalism. For a great recent work explaining that rejection, see William Glod’s excellent book Why Its OK To Make Bad Choices. Rejecting paternalism does not entail rejecting the claim that there are objective facts about what makes people better off. It entails only rejecting the use of such facts as a reason to coerce people. Put this to the side.

Given that there is an objective component of well-being and that it is at least possible that government can know what will make people better off (not a small assumption), we should admit that premise 2 is false—coercion can make people better off. This is both because their subjective desires may, if satisfied, make them worse off regardless of anything else and because of indirect benefits that result from the coercion (especially if it solves collective action problems).

Where are we left? Premise 2 is likely false. The syllogism is unsound. Nonetheless, I oppose government paternalism. So…

(C) Another syllogism

1. Government actions entail coercion.

2. If coercion makes the coerced better off, it is permissible

3. Government coercion makes the coerced better off.

4. Government action is permissible.

(D) Discussion

Here, I think, we need to explicitly recognize that one may be better off in one way while being worse off in another—and whether one is better or worse off overall would then be an open question. (This is implicit in both the second and third paths discussed in (C) above.)

When government uses coercion to improve society in the way that the third path in (B) assumes, those coerced are treated disrespectfully. I think that weighs extremely heavily in the final calculus determining permissibility.

The situation is analogous to a parent offering a child a delicious chocolate shake to which they surreptitiously added a vegetable (or medicine) the child hates. If successful, this may well make the child better off, but it does so by treating the child as… a child. This is, we assume, ok when dealing with children, but is not OK—or at least may not be—when dealing with an adult. Not letting an adult make the choice to eat (or not) the vegetable is disrespectful. It treats the adult as a child. In that regard—which I take to be of significant importance—the adult is made worse off.

In a fashion similar to that of tricking the adult to take their medicine, coercing adults to pay for things they do not want to, is disrespectful to the coerced. That the coercion would be in the service of making the world better for them, as well as those directly aided, does not change that. That disrespect weighs so heavy that I am doubtful we can say those coerced are overall better off. We might say that some of them are—presumably those who upon learning of how they and others benefit are comfortable with having been coerced (to whom the first justification in (B) above would appeal). I suspect, however, that some will not be so sanguine. They may well be worse off overall. Government coercion would be impermissible on these grounds.

The second syllogism (C) is, it seems, as unsound (because premise 3 is at least sometimes false) as the first (A). A government action may be Pareto optimal; it may also be unacceptably paternalist and impermissible for that reason.

(E) A final note

Nothing said here, of course, entails a claim that we shouldn’t try to solve collection action problems or try to make people better off. Probably we should. But we should do so by trying to persuade them, rationally, to make choices that will lead them to be better off and, where appropriate, solve the collection action problems that contribute to that.