Paternalism and public policy

Paternalism has been a hallmark of Progressive reform movements for over one hundred years, and today’s school-reform movement is no different. Whether it’s Temperance and Prohibition or the effort to shutter popular but ineffective public schools, the principle is the same: Members of an “enlightened elite” believe that they must act to create and enforce rules that will be good for the huddled masses.

Petty Little Dictator Disorder
Finding the line between paternalism and Petty Little Dictator Disorder.

I say that as someone who often finds himself in favor of paternalistic policies. (Jay Greene would accuse me of having Petty Little Dictator Disorder.) I look upon the reign of Mayor Bloomberg, for instance, with considerable respect. I find it hard to argue with his public-health initiatives; Gotham, in my view, is clearly better off now that bars and restaurants are smoke free and donuts don’t contain trans-fats. Let them eat cake—but only if it doesn’t kill them!

I’ve been particularly taken, though, with the Bloomberg-Giuliani approach to crime fighting, including the aggressive use of stop, question, and frisk. As Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and others argue, this tactic is a big reason why New York is now the safest big city in America. And the steep drop in crime is most beneficial to low-income and minority New Yorkers, who are the victims of crime in overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers. Sure, that means that lots of innocent New Yorkers get stopped, questioned, and frisked, but to my policy-wonk eyes, it’s a fair tradeoff for greater public safety.

But what if low-income and minority individuals disagree? What I found most powerful about President Obama’s heartfelt comments about the Trayvon Martin verdict was his depiction of the insidiousness of racial profiling:

It’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that—that doesn’t go away.
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

Gulp. So even if racial profiling “works” as a crime-fighting tactic, it also reinforces these daily traumas that black men in particular suffer. Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it a “racist public-safety tax.” Perhaps it should be minority communities who get to decide whether paying this tax is worth the benefit. Or perhaps not. Read on.

Come back to education reform. The most paternalist policies in place today require the closure of underperforming schools even where they are popular with parents. Those of us at Fordham have long been champions of this approach, and remain so today, as the clear evidence (from Ohio and elsewhere) is that parental choice per se is not enough to ensure quality schools and strong outcomes for children.

But I’m newly sensitized to the populist argument that questions the justice of closing schools over the will of parents and the community. These are the people who will pay the price—and potentially reap the rewards—of seeing schools closed and new ones opened in their neighborhood. As with “stop and frisk,” there’s a case to be made that these are the people who should decide whether the tradeoffs are worth it.

A case to be made, yes, but I don’t quite buy it. When it comes to crime, are those of us outside the African American community supposed to sit by and bemoan “black-on-black” violence but not do all we can to stop it? Even when it affronts our sense of justice, of human dignity and morality? Not to mention its impact on the larger community—when violence spills over, when high crime impedes economic growth, and more?

And because education is not just a “private good”—society’s welfare depends in no small part on an educated populace—isn’t it appropriate for the public to demand that schools meet certain standards, especially when taxpayer dollars are involved? Isn’t leaving such decisions to the immediately-affected “community” just a recipe for inaction and further academic decline?

So, in the spirit of the Progressive tradition, I remain wedded to my paternalistic preferences. But I will aim to be less dismissive of the “will of the people” at the same time. How about you?

This piece was revised on July 25, 2013, for the Education Gadfly Weekly.

More By Author

Related Articles