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Earth to Paternalists of Latin America: The People Know Best

By: José Azel - Jul 28, 2014, 6:45 am

EspañolThe constitutions of Latin-American countries, almost without exception, begin with a sentence exalting the nation-state or highlighting the patriarchal role of the elected representatives. “We the representatives of the people of Costa Rica…,” “The Congress of the Republic of Venezuela…,” “The Constituent Congress (of Peru) invoking God Almighty…,” “The sovereign nation and its government (of the Dominican Republic)…,” “We the deputies (of Honduras)…,” “Bolivia, free, independent, sovereign…,” “The Panamanian Nation…,” “The Oriental Republic of Uruguay is the political association….”

Generally, the constitutions then go on to mandate, in insufferable paternalistic detail, what values the citizenry and the state ought to uphold. For example, Article 8 of the Bolivian constitution dictates that “Each person has the following fundamental duties: (b) To work … in socially useful activities. (c) To attend at least primary school, (e) To assist, feed, and educate his/her children … and to assist ones parents when they are sick … (g) To cooperate with the state and the community….” All laudable aspirations, but do we need to be ordered to do this by the constitution?

Article 4 of the Nicaraguan Constitution charges the state with “promoting and guaranteeing advances in the social character to assure the common good….” The Paraguayan constitution, in article 6, asserts that “the quality of life will be promoted by the state with plans and policies that recognize conditional factors….” Peru, in article 2 (6), wants to insure that “information services … do not provide information that affect personal or familiar intimacy.” And Ecuador requires the state to plan the national development, to eradicate poverty … so as to have access to the good life.

In vivid contrast, the United States Constitution — the shortest written constitution — not only begins by vesting all power in “We the people,” but proceeds immediately to set the limitations of government and to guarantee personal freedoms in the first seven articles and in the Bill of Rights. It is this great “American experiment in freedom,” as Alexis de Tocqueville called it, that we celebrate each Fourth of July with fireworks, parades, barbecues, fairs, and picnics.

Explicitly and implicitly the Latin-American statist governing mindset is that power must rest, not with the uninformed people, but with the enlightened representatives who arrogantly believe they know what is best for the people. This variety of epistemic paternalism holds that our individual decision-making capabilities are subject to errors that impair our well being and thus, for our own good, we must rely on government to exercise power over our decision making.

(BJKeefe Blog)
(BJKeefe Blog)

This infantilizes us since, as individual adults, we are the best judges of what it means for our lives to go well. Moreover, we usually make better choices than those who endeavor to choose for us via one-size-fits-all government programs. Indeed we make mistakes, but even those are often instructive and improve our future decision making. Public officials, even if principled and public-spirited, make mistakes as well. In the end, our errors may be less damaging than those made by public officials. Governmental paternalism makes our lives go worse, if only because when we are denied freedom of choice, we experience a loss in well being.

The inability of even close friends and family to know what we would like is neatly captured by Joel Waldfogel in his book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays. No matter how hard we try to find the right gifts for our loved ones, we are likely to fail and end up giving presents that the recipients would not buy for themselves. Research shows that when choices are not made by the ultimate consumers, gift recipients would not have paid anything close to what we paid — on average only twenty-five percent of our purchase prices. Government, ineptly attempting to choose for us, destroys value.

Latin-American governments would do well to stop their paternalist, statist ways and adopt John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forebear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others , to do so would be wise, or even right…”

We the people know what is in our best interest.

This article first appeared in the Miami Herald.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.