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Justifying Unjustifiable Authoritarianism

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So I just finished reading this op ed piece by one Sarah Conly who decided to step up to the plate and defend busybody mayor Bloomberg and his attempt to ban the sale of large size soft drinks in New York City. She is obviously a well educated person and makes a fairly well thought out argument over why certain freedoms should be curtailed. Well educated, however, does not necessarily mean free thinking, nor does it necessarily translate into wisdom. In fact, after reading Ms. Conly's op/ed piece I would say that she was decidedly against free thought, unless of course that free thought leads one into the arms of the ever coddling state.

There is no doubt in my mind that Ms. Conly is a very loving soul who is quite concerned about her fellow human beings. Her op/ed piece shows that she is quite concerned with the well being of the rest of us who dwell upon the planet with her. Like most defenders of the nanny state she is quick to point out that government laws are there to protect you, and she does so in an eloquent and convincing manner. She also manages to verbally dance around one of the most important aspects of the debate, as do most apologists for government intrusion on your life, and that is the aspect of the morality of using force to change people's behavior.

Force and coercion are the tools government has to get people to comply with their mandates. With that in mind the claim can be made that all laws have the potential to carry with it the death penalty. It would work as an escalation. Man sells large sugary drink. Man is ticketed. Man refuses to pay ticket. A warrant is issued for the man's arrest. Man refuses to acknowledge the court's jurisdiction over him. Police try to force compliance. Man resists. Police kill the man. Whenever a law is passed the question should be asked, "Is this law worth killing people over?"

Some might say this is an extreme example, and they'd be right. Such people would find it very difficult to argue, however, that even though this scenario is extremely unlikely, it is not impossible. Because of its extreme nature, if such an event were to happen the man killed by the police would not be portrayed as someone trying to defend his right to engage in voluntary transactions between two consenting parties, he'd be portrayed as a crazy extremist. But perhaps they're right and I shouldn't use such extreme examples. Perhaps I should take a page from Ms. Conly's book and use examples like comparing banning certain sizes of sugary drinks with preventing someone from crossing a derelict bridge because, you know, those two situations are so similar.

In all fairness the example is not her own. Ms. Conly uses an example proffered by John Stuart Mill way back in 1859, then proceeds to disagree with him. I think the point that Ms. Conly was making, though in not so many words, is that the government creates law to keep you safe. They make laws to protect you from yourself. But this hardly works. One needs to ask the question, when does it become necessary for someone to protect us from the protectors? Let's examine the example of the bridge a little closer. She states earlier in the article that we need to be stopped from doing foolish stuff, and apparently she thinks the way to do this is to pass laws against doing foolish stuff. With this in mind I ask, what would be the purpose of passing a law making it illegal to cross the bridge?

Ah, this would be an easy question to answer. The purpose would be to prevent people from trying to cross the bridge so that they don't fall into the river and perhaps injure or kill themselves. How do we make certain people adhere to this law? Well, let's hire men to guard or patrol the bridge and if someone tries to cross they'll tell them, "No, you can't cross this bridge." We can even arm these men so they look official and intimidating. What if, for some strange reason, the people don't want listen and decide to cross anyway? Perhaps its the best way to get to the other side despite the danger. Then those people will get citations with court dates and fines. What if they throw the citations away and still decide to try to cross despite all that? Even though it remains dangerous to do so? Well, then the guards can shoot them. After all, we have to keep people safe from their own foolish actions.

Did this law accomplish its purpose? Was its purpose truly to stop the people from crossing, or was something else at work here? Were those passing the laws maybe more interested in collecting money? Were they more interested in controlling people's behavior? Is there a better way to stop people from crossing dangerous bridges than using the force and coercion of the state?

I didn't even bother to talk about how that law doesn't prevent people from going down the embankment and trying to ford the river, even though that might be more dangerous due to strong currents, nor did I examine the various reasons one might want to cross the river. The point I'm trying to make is that force and coercion aren't always the best ways to prevent people from doing something they might want to do. In the case of crossing the bridge a sign making people aware of the danger and pointing out safer areas to cross should be sufficient. In the case of large servings of soda, perhaps some kind of public service announcement or education effort paid for by concerned citizens, such as Ms. Conly, could be a better solution than an outright ban on certain sizes of soft drinks. Perhaps the mayor himself could afford to pay for such a campaign, I understand he is quite wealthy. If he is so concerned, perhaps he should show it by voluntarily contributing his own money to such a worthy cause rather than using tax dollars to enforce a law. In either case, I do believe the individual should be left to determine for himself the level of risk he wants to take.

Ms. Conly goes on to cite studies on cognitive bias and then seems to fail to understand that she suffers from the same malady as the rest of us. I understand that my cognitive bias causes me to believe that freedom is the answer no matter the question. It seems to me that Ms. Conly has a cognitive bias that favors one size fits all state solutions known as laws. She mentions the status quo bias and then supports the status quo of political power. It also seems to me that perhaps she suffers from something I would call a propaganda bias in that she accepts the statist propaganda (i.e. for the greater good, majority rules, for the public welfare) without question. She cites cost/benefit analyses and the fact that government has the resources to use such methods as a justification for using force to get us to behave in certain manners. I say such methods have been abused in the past, are being abused in the present and will continue to be abused into the future so long as people in power can benefit from such abuse.

Going back to the beginning of her article, Ms. Conly asks "So, why is this (the ban on large sized "sugary drinks") such a big deal?" Because it should be a big deal. There needs to be a line drawn where people start to say that we need to be protected against those who wish to be the protectors. Apparently this is that line. A more appropriate question in my mind is "Why are people like Ms. Conly making such a big deal about the blowback this has caused?" Also, why is it that collectivists will happily use the ideas of democracy and majority rule when most everyone agrees with their policy proposals, but will suddenly balk at those concepts and claim to know better than the rest of us when their policy proposals are challenged by the majority or sometimes even a significant minority?

Ms. Conly is an associate professor of philosophy at Bowdoin College, a prestigious private college located in Maine. She wrote a book entitled "Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism." She is not only for the daddy state, she wrote a book on it. I don't know why so many academics seem to favor state solutions to societal problems, solutions that have so often failed throughout all of history. I can only put forth conjecture. Perhaps they've lost faith in humanity. Perhaps they honestly believe that an academic, scientific elite should make the decisions for everyone. Perhaps they see themselves as part of this ruling elite class and don't want to lose the power and privileges they perceive they have. Perhaps they don't see their education as just a higher level of training, but believe that because they are so educated they are indeed more intelligent and better than the rest of us. Perhaps it has something to do with how the institutions that pay their salaries are funded. I'm really not sure. I'm just kind of thinking out loud and giving anyone who cares to chew on it food for thought.

Ms. Conly does have one thing right, this is not about soda. And it's not about health. It's not even about public welfare or the greater good. It's about control. It always has been. It's about freedom versus tyranny. It's about a small cadre of elitists pushing the envelope and always trying to see just how far they can go, just how much they can micromanage our lives. It's my hope that not only did they find that limit, but that common folk realize this is what the elitists have been doing all along and begin to take back their freedoms by forcing the repeal of other prohibitions and restrictions that have stifled our ability to produce for ourselves and enjoy the fruits of our labor.

There's an even larger question at stake here. Mostly, this is about who owns whom. Do I own my own body, or does the state? Do I have the right to do with my body as I please, or does the state have some claim on it as if I'm their property? It's ironic that Ms. Conly is associated with an historical college that has a reputation for its anti slavery past and yet writes opinions in favor of a more subtle form of slavery to the state. When I speak of freedom, I am being an abolitionist. When she speaks about coercive paternalism she is being an enslaving authoritarian, no matter how eloquently she might make her arguments and how reasonable they may sound.

If you enjoy my writings, please visit to make a donation. While Ms. Conly has an institution to support her and her work, I do not. I can only humbly ask for your voluntary donations as I try to respond to statist propaganda.

Below is a list of all my works available at Please help me by purchasing one or more of my ebooks and writing favorable reviews if you like them so that others might also find and enjoy them.

Caged in America: A Collection of Essays Celebrating Freedom. By Szandor Blestman

Ron Paul's Wisdom, A Layman's Perspective. A Collection of Opinion Editorials. By Szandor Blestman

Galaxium. A screenplay By Matthew Ballotti

The Colors of Elberia; book 1 of The Black Blade Trilogy. By Matthew Ballotti

The Legacy of the Tareks; book 2 of The Black Blade Trilogy. By Matthew Ballotti

The Power of the Tech; book 3 of The Black Blade Trilogy. By Matthew Ballotti

The Edge of Sanity. By Matthew Ballotti

The Ouijiers By Matthew Ballotti


Comments (2)
  • Howard Romano  - Justifying Unjustifiable Authoritarianism

    Great article. Thanks. I have often made the argument that I own my own body. Interestingly enough, there are people out there that reject this idea of self ownership and claim that no one owns one's self, including one's self. They reject the idea of property altogether.

  • sblestman

    How can no one own a body? Who takes care of it? Who uses it to do things? Who controls it? Who protects it? Those are the things that define ownership. People who take that position, that no one owns their body and there is no private property, haven't put much thought into it.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 April 2013 18:40