10 May 2012

Paternalism and the Infantile Society

The continued expansion of the welfare state is a grave concern to me, now more than ever.  I fear the expansion of the welfare state because I believe it infantilizes society.  By this I mean that citizens of the united states become more dependent on the federal government’s largesse, and in so doing become less inclined to behave responsibly, secure in the knowledge that if all else fails, the government will be there to save.

Now freed from the main concerns of life, such as finding food and shelter, and now freed from having to constantly be working to afford these things, people will be increasingly able to enwrap themselves in their own little petty dramas.  In a panem et circenses world, this will mostly take the form of eating junk food and watching mindless entertainment, which is what a large number of US citizens already do anyway.  The more serious minded might make an effort to watch and read the news, but the news is still entertainment, although more deceitfully packaged.  Ultimately, the infantile society is one where innovative risk is discouraged, moral risk is subsidized, and the pursuit of leisure and entertainment becomes the point of life.

This is not healthy, and is indeed a form of arrested development, for people will not be expected to worry too much, nor will people be expected to work hard, at least in the sense of doing labor.  The emphasis will be on being compliant citizens and, above all else, being safe.  This emphasis on safety is the most infantilizing action of all.  Consider, for example, how risk-averse boys are treated by their more adventurous peers:  they are often called babies.  And the more risk-averse men are often called boys by their peers.  The idea is that there is some shame to be found in prizing safety above all else, and that aversion to risk is a hallmark of youth, wherein one lacks the resources to deal with the risks that adults often face.

What’s interesting about this infantilization of society, though, is how it is self-perpetuating.  The childish mindset belied by the focus on safety—which is very much in full effect in the united states, as evidenced by the DHS, among a variety of other safety-oriented federal agencies—is often accompanied by another childish mindset:  tattling.

And here is how it all works:  citizens are treated like children, and they eventually come to act like children:  dependent ignorant, unthinking, and hedonistic.  They are unduly focused on safety, being generally unable to provide it for themselves, and they are told that they can only be safe if they obey The Rules.  Nothing enrages the infantile mind more than disobedience to the rules; it is as if the fundamental justice of the universe has been called into question if anyone ever disobeys The Rules.  They are in place to keep us safe, after all, and therefore everyone must comply with them.

Therefore, when the infantile-minded of society observe someone disobeying the rules, like running a red light or holding gold when it’s forbidden to do so, the infantile-minded will have no qualms about tattling to the paternalistic government because they perceive themselves to be acting in the best interest of society.  In reality, the tattlers are nothing more petty tyrants who wish to exercise power over others, in the guise of acting in everyone’s best interests.

Nonetheless, that is how the paternalistic society works and self-perpetuates.  Citizens are treated as children, then act as children, and eventually take on the vices of children.  And then society collapses on itself.


  1. Prizing safety above all.

    That's what girls do.

  2. I'm not sure this is a "welfare state" problem so much as it's a "rich economy" problem. Naturally as people get richer they become more risk averse (less to gain, more to lose). Large institutions naturally have to be more bureaucratic. Not sure that any large rich polity is immune to this, regardless of its laws.

  3. It's not the welfare state that is the problem, it's unconditional welfare and the concept of welfare equality.

    The state needs to distinguish between the worthy and unworthy poor.
    And yes, I decide who's worthy, because moral relativism undercuts this conception.

    A large class of near starving people is a fertile field for socialism, so some welfare should be provided but what needs to be discouraged is the welfare option. It's perfectly biblical, just ask St Paul.

  4. Simon, what you've written here is one of the keys to understanding modern America (indeed, the modern West). Few people even see it, let alone are able to get their heads around it. I hope it becomes a staple of your intellectual arsenal.

    While I grant that the welfare state exacerbates the problem, I suspect that AC, above, is correct: At root, this is a rich-economy issue. Technological growth and its resulting comforts seem to have revealed a quirk of human nature: The more comfortable we are, the more sensitive we become to minor discomforts.

    Call it the princess-and-the-pea phenomenon.

    Back in the day, de Tocqueville foresaw something similar. I can't recall the exact quote, but essentially he predicted that as democracies increasingly sought and achieved more equity among humans, there would be a corresponding increase in the sensation of inequity. As you keep flattening things out -- as you continue toward some perceived perfection -- the ever-smaller disfigurements loom ever larger as imperfections.

    Hence we arrive at a 2012 where the racial makeup of the HBO show "Girls" can actually become a Pressing Issue Of The Day.

    The irony, of course, is that this kind of indulgence is the very thing that will undermine the luxurious society that allows such indulgence to exist in the first place. In the long run, it's a self-defeating situation.

  5. @Zorro- children are the same way, re: safety. Is suspect that's why Roissy suggests treating a woman like a child.

    @AC- The welfare state and a wealthy society are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the existence of the former is generally predicated on the existence of the latter.

    @SP- generally agreed, though my personal preference would be for the church to take the lead on the issue of welfare, since the church can tie welfare to moral and productive behaviors.

    Please keep in mind that my point in this post was not that this is the behavior of people who receive welfare but rather the behavior who believe that they can receive welfare if worst comes to worst. Basically, there is a false sense of security that leads to an infantile mindset.

    @Display Name- I'd forgotten that I haven't gotten around to finishing my post on social risk equilibrium, which I was going to refer you to. Anyhow, I understand that wealthy societies are risk averse. I also see that wealthy societies are very likely to have social welfare. The are not mutually exclusive. I focused on the welfare because it's easier to see the infantile mindset. To some extent, the same mindset is found among those who are generally wealthy, which would include most Americans, but its not as easy to relate general wealth to a tendency to report rule-breakers to the government.

  6. >because they perceive themselves to be acting in the best interest of society

    Not to mention that "society" is a questionable word in this context.

    To quote Hayek in The Fatal Conceit (pp. 112-113):

    "[I]n the study of human affairs difficulties of communication begin with the definition and naming of the very objects we wish to analyse. The chief terminological barrier to understanding, outranking in importance the other terms we have just discussed, is the expression `society' itself - and not only inasmuch as it has, since Marx, been used to blur distinctions between governments and other `institutions'. As a word used to describe a variety of systems of interconnections of human activities, `society' falsely suggests that all such systems are of the same kind. It is also one of the oldest terms of this kind, as for example in the Latin societas, from socius, the personally known fellow or companion; and it has been used to describe both an actually existing state of affairs and a relation between individuals. As usually employed, it presupposes or implies a common pursuit of shared purposes that usually can be achieved only by conscious collaboration. As we have seen, it is one of the necessary conditions of the extension of human cooperation beyond the limits of individual awareness that the range of such pursuits be increasingly governed not by shared purposes but by abstract rules of conduct whose observance brings it about that we more and more serve the needs of people whom we do not know and find our own needs similarly satisfied by unknown persons. Thus the more the range of human cooperation extends, the less does motivation within it correspond to the mental picture people have of what should happen in a `society', and the more `social' comes to be not the key word in a statement of the facts but the core of an appeal to an ancient, and now obsolete, ideal of general human behaviour. Any real appreciation of the difference between, on the one hand, what actually characterises individual behaviour in a particular group and, on the other, wishful thinking about what individual conduct should be (in accordance with older customs) is increasingly lost. Not only is any group of persons connected in practically any manner called a `society', but it is concluded that any such group should behave as a primitive group of companions did."

    This suggests that non-socialists should eschew the use of the word "society" in reference to the subjects of a given government en masse.

  7. @Phlebas- I'm sure I'm hardly the first to break the news to you, but words occasionally change meaning over time. The use of the word "society" in this context is valid, given its commonly accepted usage.

  8. >I'm sure I'm hardly the first to break the news to you, but words occasionally change meaning over time. The use of the word "society" in this context is valid, given its commonly accepted usage.

    Of course it is valid according to the dictionary. But as the Hayek excerpt explains, it's a questionable word in the sense that it causes people to make inferential errors by lumping together quite dissimilar things under the same label.

    There is a great difference between a tribe or a small group of acquaintances living in civilisation, and the population of a country referred to collectively. The most rational mode of cooperation in each context, i.e. the way in which an individual need interact with other members of each different type of human group that might be referred to as a "society" in order to further his goals, differs dramatically.

    Of course, it's quite possible for certain people to bear in mind this fact whilst continuing to use the word "society" to refer to several distinct kinds of human group - but in general, such a misuse of words as this tends to produce poor inferences.

    This seems particularly worth pointing out because the type of person who tries to act so as to directly further (i.e. by irrational, simplistic means that would only work within the context of a tribe or small group of close associates) the "best interest of society" would tend to be a socialist, i.e. someone who needs to learn to make the distinction in question between the egalitarian mores of tribesmen and the abstract rule-following necessary to civilisation.

  9. This is from a paper[pdf] by the economist Hans Hoppe on how the state lowers time-preference and decimalizes society:

    "Because of biological constraints on their cognitive development, children have an extremely high time preference rate. They do not possess a clear concept of a personal life expectancy extending over an extended period of time, and they lack a full comprehension of production as a mode of indirect consumption. Accordingly, present goods and immediate gratification are highly preferred to future goods and delayed gratification. Savings-investment activities are rare, and the periods of production and provision seldom extend beyond the most immediate future. Children live from day to day and from one immediate gratification to the next.

    In the course of becoming an adult, an actor's initially extremely high time preference rate tends to fall. With the recognition of one's life expectancy and the potentialities of production a s a means of indirect consumption, the marginal utility of future goods rises. Saving and investment are stimulated, and the periods of production and provision are lengthened.


    In any case [with a redistributory democratic welfare state], there will he less productive activity, self-reliance and future-orientation. and more consumption, parasitism, dependency and short-sightedness. That is, the very problem that the redistribution was supposed to cure will have grown even bigger. Accordingly, the cost of maintaining the existing level of welfare distribution will he higher now than before, and in order to finance it, wen higher taxes and more wealth confiscation must he imposed on the remaining producers. The tendency to shift from production to non-production activities will he further strengthened, leading to continuously rising time preference rates and a progressive decivilization, infantilization and demoralization civil society. [emphasis mine]"

    I believe this paper is also an chapter in his book *Democracy: The God That Failed* which expands on this phenonenon.

  10. @Kalim- Thanks for the excerpt. I've written a bit about time-preferences before, but didn't think to make the connection to infantile thinking.

    Re: Hoppe. Have you read his book and if so do you recommend it? It's looked intriguing to me. but I can't find it at my library and it's a bit on the pricey side to me. Is it worth purchasing?