BP Oil Spill and Parentalism

Gene Healy has a good article that describes how parentalism among pundits on both the Left and the Right. Here are some good snippets,

But the adults among us ought to worry about a political culture that reacts to every difficulty by screaming “Save us, Superpresident!”

It’s “taking so doggone long,” Sarah Palin wailed, for Obama “to dive in there” (literally?). “Man, you got to get down here and take control!” James Carville screeched. “Tell BP, ‘I’m your daddy!’ ”


What do Carville, Palin, et al. want the president to do? “Replace [BP] with what?” asks Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, commanding officer at the scene. As the president admitted Thursday, “The federal government does not possess superior technology to BP,” which is trying to clean up its mess with backup from a team of scientists and engineers assembled by the feds.

Should Obama travel back in time and institute better regulation? “He could’ve demanded a plan in anticipation of this,” Carville insists.

Perhaps, but it’s hardly surprising that a president who sits atop a 2-million-employee executive branch, pretending to run it, hasn’t magically solved the problem of bureaucratic incompetence or devised a plan to deal with every conceivable hazard life might present.


In this case, it may be an expensive (and likely futile) Manhattan Project of new subsidies and restrictions aimed at getting us “beyond petroleum.” In his Sunday New York Times column, Thomas Friedman urged Obama to “think like a kid,” exploit the public’s Malia-esque impulses, and push through a “game change on energy.”

“Daddy, why can’t you even mention the words ‘carbon tax’?” asks Friedman, who, according to his Times bio, is a grown man of 57.

I have to admit there is something pathetic about a 57 year old man calling the President of the United States “Daddy”. Oh wait, Thomas Friedman, well I always thought he was pathetic, so no biggie.

If you are wondering what parentalism is, Julian Sanchez had a good article on it back in 2005 at Reason.

Normal and necessary as these akrasia-countering mechanisms may be, though, they may also be symptoms of what Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan has dubbed “parentalism.” Buchanan’s term is not to be confused with paternalism, the familiar idea that sometimes people—other people—need to be restrained for their own protection from making poor choices. (In some cases, as with children or the severely mentally handicapped, this may well be right.) Parentalism is in a sense more insidious: It emerges when we begin to suspect that we ourselves are not competent to make our own choices, to yearn for someone to relieve us of the burden of choice. As Buchanan puts it:

[Economists and political theorists] have assumed that, other things being equal, persons want to be at liberty to make their own choices, to be free from coercion by others, including indirect coercion through means of persuasion. They have failed to emphasize sufficiently, and to examine the implications of, the fact that liberty carries with it responsibility. And it seems evident that many persons do not want to shoulder the final responsibility for their own actions..[They] want to be told what to do and when to do it; they seek order rather than uncertainty, and order comes at an opportunity cost they seem willing to bear.


For the true parentalist, though, this will be unsatisfying, for the true parentalist wants to escape not just the burdens of the act of choosing, but the responsibility for making a poor choice. Voluntary market mechanisms for filtering or restraining choice will always, ultimately, have an escape clause: We can fire the personal trainer or tell our friends we’ve changed our minds about that diet or quitting smoking after all. And, in the final analysis, they allow us only to defer responsibility, not avoid it. The expert I consulted may have given me bad advice, yet I may still blame myself for a poor choice of experts.

Parentalism is paternalism, but applied to yourself. You think you are no longer capable of making a decision about something so you look to someone else to make that decision for you and also absolve you the responsibility of that decision. Like taking out a mortgage you can’t afford….

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Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.