The Man Is Father To the Child

It’s getting harder and harder to remember that this was once a virile and vigorous nation. Here’s an appalling letter from today’s Times:

To the Editor:

In “The Hard Sell on Salt” (front page, May 30), it was said that the food industry successfully persuaded the Food and Drug Administration not to regulate the salt content in snack foods by arguing that to reduce salt in those products “would ruin the taste of the foods already low in sugar and fat,” thereby making them unmarketable.

But if the only flavor being tasted is salt, sugar and/or fat, then those are junk-food products that the public would be better off not buying.

Thus, once again, the government has favored industry profits over public health.

Jonathan Zell
Columbus, Ohio, May 30, 2010

In the natural world, the organism’s life-cycle progresses from larva to adult. Liberal Western society shows us the reverse is possible too.

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  1. howsurprising says

    As much as our collective ideology holds that the individual is the site of responsibility for individual behavior, and as much as our collective ideology holds that individuals are *capable* of directing their own behavior, indeed that the individual is capable of “free” choice, the fact, amply shown in the behavioral sciences that this is at best a gross over-simplification, if not a dangerously false one, of what is a perilous truth.

    The perilous truth of which I speak is that our decisions, our behaviors, are determined not from some autonomous center of mind that weighs one thing then the other, but are determined by a complex and distributed neural machinery that is at best boundedly rational, that evolved in contexts of low calorie dense environments, contexts that reward short-term rewards over long-term goals, that are profoundly sensitive to context and priming, etc. The every-day experimental manipulations of subjects of psychological experiments demonstrate this truth very concretely. How our cognition is affected, and can be affected, by such manipulation is well documented, and it’s extent is not small.

    The point is that our cognition does not fit the model that ideological assumptions of personal responsibility and choice depend. Moreover, the very fact that we have spent a great deal of money and effort cataloging these cognitive levers, and that those who are in the best position to pull those levers are precisely those with money, power, and the interest to do so, we face the very real prospect of increasingly losing our individual behavioral autonomy to a growing barrage of highly effective manipulations serving corporate interests.

    This is not entirely new of course. Ever since ‘big men’ began to demand from others those things (in time, materials, and labor) that enabled these others to be independent and free, political elite have manipulated the perceptions of the public in various ways- political stelae come to mind, for example. These technologies of manipulation (or persuasion, if you like) were crude, based on intuitions and trial and error. But now we have the power of science behind it.

    It is not lacking in vigor and virility to identify a problem and to tackle it with the tools available to us. Quite the opposite.

    Take the results of the experimental behavioral sciences seriously, the world as it is, not as we imagine it to be, and see what follows.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  2. the one eyed man says

    Stelae? Would that be Stelae by Starlight?

    I think that pointing to a single letter writer in Columbus, Ohio, as being emblematic of our supposed lack of virility and vigor is an extrapolation too far to be insisted upon.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    “Howsurprising”, you’d have a hard time finding a more sympathetic audience than me for your claims about human nature. I am a staunch Darwinian, and an avid follower of current research in evolutionary psychology, and even of current research into rationality and decision-making. I’m really interested in this stuff. My shelves are filled with books by Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, Dan Ariely, Marc Hauser, Daniel Kahneman, David Sloan Wilson, and many others.

    Where we differ is in our normative prescription, and our concept of the proper role of government.

    It is a useful thing to know that we only enjoy salt, and fat, and sugar, and sex, for various evolutionary reasons. It is also enormously helpful to be well-informed about the physical and other effects of wallowing in these indulgences. I think it is wonderful that this sort of information is easily available nowadays, so that all may make informed choices as to their diet, and I happily endorse any government initiatives to support nutritional research, and to publicize the results. The more people know about all of this the better.

    Some of us, so informed, and prioritizing svelteness and longevity over present enjoyment, may choose to live on soy-paste and raw spinach, washed down with rainwater. (I don’t envy them such a life, but it is theirs to choose.) Others, seizing the moment, may opt for stuffed-crust pizza and a hoppy IPA, or perhaps Cheetos and Mountain Dew. Chacun à son goût.

    When we were children, and had not reached responsible age, we were compelled, rightly, to subordinate our choices to parental authority. Upon reaching adulthood in America, however, we are not children any more: we are free men and women. Not, though, in the opinion of Mr. Jonathan Zell, of Columbus, Ohio. In his view, individual citizens are simply incapable of assuming such responsiblity, and so for our own good we must be protected, as we were when we were children, by a watchful, caring, parental eye — a bloated and totalizing State.

    This trend, which is on the march everywhere — in particular here in New York City, under the patronizing and condescending guardianship of Michael Bloomberg — is an infantilizing perversion of government, a rejection of core American principles, and an affront to human freedom and dignity.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 10:26 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Perhaps, Peter, we may agree on “symptomatic”. The malady is real enough.

    Posted June 8, 2010 at 10:30 pm | Permalink
  5. howsurprising says


    stelae as in the plural of stele, stone monuments of various kinds, used for political messages of various kinds, among other things.


    Children do indeed need more protection than adults. Developmentally, there is no sharp divide between the time an individual is seventeen and eighteen, the age at which most become legal adults*. Clearly what we are interested in are the behavioral capacities (such as that of self-control) of individuals as they age. Clearly also is that people vary in those capacities in all stages of life (indeed, as we age, some capacities are lost or degraded).

    Having then shed the fiction of a sharp distinction between childhood and adulthood, in favor of a more solid (and measurable) footing in actual behavioral capacities, it should be evident that the basis of the decision to protect members of society from harm depends crucially on that person’s vulnerability to harm: which is obviously a relation between the various behavioral capacities or proclivities of an individual, and the capacities of the effectors (or vectors) of potential harm.

    Given the significant evidence that people, at all stages of development, are at significant risk of obesity in our society– and we include all sorts of people from the business executive, the scientist, or the former jock– it should be sufficiently clear that many people, even highly responsible ones, are *vulnerable* to particular kinds of harmful stimuli/environmental inputs that are, at present, ubiquitous.

    We are also vulnerable to heroin and other opiates. Imagine if heroin were available at every checkout in the liquor market, grocery store, gas station, and various opiates integrated into soft-drinks. What then? Would it be evidence of our nation’s lack of virility and vigor for our Jonathan to complain about a lack of regulation on these products? Or would the lack of virility and vigor be evidenced precisely by a governments unwillingness to protect consumers at the expense of business interests? Drug addiction is slavery. It is the killer of autonomy.

    Do you think high-calorie high-fat foods are not addictive? Do you think people are fat because of a moral failing on their part? I will tell you: the evidence says no. And that is not liberal wash.

    For the record: I know many liberals who oppose “the nanny state”. I’m one of them. There is a distinction that seems too often lost: the distinction between protecting people from harm from others, and dictating what people can do with their own selves. Many liberals (not all of course) will support the former, but not the latter. While many conservatives (not all of course) reject the former, but are happy enough to tell people what they can and cannot do with their own bodies.

    Let me just summarize this as follows: we all want to generally preserve the idea and the fact of individual autonomy, but the world we live in makes it in its purest form untenable, and indeed self-destructive**. Our goal then should be protect autonomy, not just the idea of it, but the real thing.

    *It is true that in many, if not most, societies the transition to the status of adulthood is similarly abrupt, though it is usually marked in a more ritually profound manner than the silently acquired eligibility to vote, sit on a jury, die in a foreign war, and chance to go to jail for kissing your seventeen year old girlfriend.

    **I, for one, hate regulation- its annoying, a burden on society, benefits large business but not small business, its intrusive on our lives- but as BP’s oil spill, and many other environmental problem makes clear, regulation is a necessary evil.

    Posted June 9, 2010 at 12:44 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Again, HS, we have many points of agreement, but differ in our idea of what government ought to be doing.

    It is true, of course, that it is impossible to make a one-size-fits-all chronological distinction between children and adults. Some people mature phenomenally early, some much later. Some individuals chafe for years as they wait to take their place in the adult world, and others are thrust into it long before they are really ready. Some of us, and I’m sure we all can think of examples, are never really ready.

    But even though we all acknowledge that people differ in this way, when it comes to law-making, lines must be drawn, and so drawn they are. We have age-of-majority laws that apply to drinking, marriage, sexual consent, voting, criminal justice, the binding power of contracts, and all sorts of other rights and responsibilities. Where to draw this line is a contentious issue: set the age too low, and you give too many people rights and responsibilities for which they are unready. Set it too high, and you deprive too many young adults of the benefits and obligations of full citizenship. For most things, as we all know, the line is usually drawn somewhere between 18 and 21. There are exceptions: in some states, for example, you can drive a car earlier in your teens. And you can’t be the President until you are 35.

    Why do we care about where we draw the line? Why not just set it comfortably high, and forget about it? Because minors, though protected, are deprived of essential rights and liberties. In America, until now at least, the emphasis has been to favor liberty over protection. We would rather be free to take our own risks and make our own way than be sheltered and swaddled by the secure, but confining, guardianship of parental authority, and so the bar of majority is set at an age that seems to strike the right general balance.

    As someone once said: ships are safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.

    And here is the nub of our disagreement. On the basis of your own argument, certainly you will agree that while many of us lack, as you say, the maturity and self-control to avoid destroying themselves with drink, and drugs, and sex, and food, there are also a great many of us who can manage such temptations perfectly well; who can enjoy all of these little pleasures in a responsible way. Certainly, at the very least — and this is a key point that must be emphasized — the great majority of people are able to conduct themselves so as to enjoy drink and drugs and food and sex without causing harm to others, which of course should be the primary concern of an appropriately limited government of a free people.

    So: we have a balance to strike between liberty and protection. You, it seems, care more about the latter, even though your protection of the weak and incompetent can only be achieved by curtailing the rights of those who are neither. I, on the other hand, favor the preservation of essential liberties, even though it means that there will always be people who simply cannot handle responsible adulthood.

    Every single time we pass a new law, we chip off a little piece of our freedom, and whenever those laws act to place free men and women under the parental supervision of the State, we incrementally enfeeble, demoralize, and infantilize our society as a whole.

    As Dennis Prager pithily put it: the bigger the government, the smaller the citizen. (See here, and in particular here.)

    So: am I am absolutist about this? No. I am inclined to agree with you, for example (though just barely) that perhaps we are right to outlaw the hardest of narcotics (though I am strongly in favor of legalizing marijuana). But what sort of snacks I, or you, enjoy is simply none of the government’s damn business.

    Posted June 9, 2010 at 8:03 pm | Permalink