James Buchanan (via Don Boudreaux) proposes a useful taxonomy of motivations for government intervention: managerial socialism, paternalistic socialism, distributionalist socialism, and parental socialism. I’m not sure why he felt the need to attach the word ‘socialism’ to all four concepts; I would have called the second ‘paternalism’ and the third ‘parentalism.’ But I agree with Boudreaux that the fourth concept, parentalism, is both the most intriguing and the most disturbing. The idea is that many people just don’t want to be free because they can’t handle the responsibility, so they actively seek out governmental control over their lives. This is distinguished from paternalism, which results from people trying to control other people’s choices instead of their own.
However, I wonder if parentalism might turn out, at least in a wide range of cases, to be a combination of standard paternalism and distributionalist socialism. Why? Because the private market does offer people (limited) opportunities to turn over their choices and responsibilities to others. You can check yourself into drug rehab clinics. You can turn your finances over to family members. You can voluntarily join a commune or cult and let the leaders decide what you can do, believe, say, and own.
The availability of these private options implies that parentalists who seek government intervention want something more. I can think of three possibilities. First, they don’t merely want to constrain themselves, but others as well. This is, of course, just standard paternalism once you “subtract out” the aspects of the intervention that could be incurred privately. Second, they don’t want to have to pay for the private alternatives; e.g., they want someone else to fund the drug rehab clinic or commune. This is redistributionalist socialism, albeit for the funding of private parentalism. Third, they don’t want an exit option. With the private alternatives, you can generally leave the arrangement – walk out of the rehab clinic, leave the commune, etc. Government intervention can remove that option, making one’s commitment to giving up one’s freedom credible. This third possibility strikes me as the only “pure” parentalism.
Considering only the third possibility, the question is how freedom-loving people can shield themselves from those who would invite government into everyone’s lives just to control themselves. I will suggest just one possibility: that we might wish to weaken the notion of unalienable rights. Something unalienable cannot be taken away or transferred to someone else, even voluntarily. Unalienability is what prevents you from permanently renouncing your freedom by, say, selling yourself into slavery. There are some reasonable arguments in favor of unalienability, so I won’t say it’s a categorically bad idea. But the problem of parentalism makes me wonder if allowing, and enforcing, some degree of voluntary alienability in basic rights might help to shield those of us actually value our freedom from those who don’t.