Posted: November 28, 2011
According to the Charlottesville Daily Progress, Doris Boitnott, assistant director of the Virginia Education Association (something one might once have called a union), opined last year that employees of local government should enjoy no options in regard to their retirement funds, both to hold the workers in their jobs and because many of them lack the knowledge to make informed decisions. "If you give your kids the choice of having chocolate for dinner or having broccoli for dinner," she says in reference to her presumably adult members, "they may choose the chocolate, which may not be the best for them."
Children, teachers, you, and I may not know what is best, but not Doris Boitnott. She knows. She knows that her members are better off when told what to do, even with their own money. And in the march of creeping paternalism, she is hardly alone. More and more of each American's livelihood, and therefore more and more of each American's time and life's blood, are directed away from his power of decision and disposition and into that of a diffuse collective, meaning actually a relatively small number of elites and experts who look down upon those who have raised them up. Putting in power the kind of person who believes he achieves moral elevation by compelling recalcitrants to his supposedly higher plane is like sending a beagle to an all-you-can-eat buffet. He doesn't know where or when to stop, and, as is not the case with beagles, there is neither limit to his presumption nor a ceiling to his self-congratulation.
We are familiar with political incarnations of dirigisme throughout history that have at least given rise to an opposition that keeps them partially in check. We do not, for example, have a king. Except among movie stars, the feudal aristocracy is gone. Resistance to such overt political paternalism is alive and well, perhaps because statism—confiscating and commanding—is hard medicine to take. But the general tendency of mankind to render itself into a kind of clay to be shaped by others persists under democratic conditions, and is hardly confined to the relation of citizen to state. It is unfortunately ever active in temptations more dangerous than any the state can devise, for being sweet, habit-forming, and irresistible. Among other things, freely offered and freely accepted entanglements cannot be criticized for suppressing freedom of decision. Such criticism—the most powerful means of attack upon state encroachments—misfires.
In every sphere apart from government, individual autonomy can be eroded, diminished, and eliminated, exactly as in government, by dependency—which to be crippling need not be compelled. A vivid illustration of this is the extent to which we have run to entrust information to servers we neither own, control, see, nor even have the ability to locate. Because of a mistake, crime, or burst of electro-magnetic pulse; our financial and health records, correspondence, photographs, and, for some incautious souls, the work of a lifetime, could be wiped out in a fraction of a second and no one would even know where to look.
Apart from the question of safety and preservation, the recklessness of surrendering all our information to the custody of people we do not know in conditions we have not fully vetted or even, in most cases, bothered to ascertain, creates a potential for abuse that would make even Kim Jong Il blush. Imagine if from the time of its founding the post office had not delivered mail but kept it, letting you see it but retaining every letter and document, photograph, proposal, statement, love missive, and farewell, and then developed a way that they can to search, catalog, and cross-reference it mechanically, while knowing—from the hand-held device you cannot do without—where you are, where you have been, what you buy, with whom you associate, what you read, and so on.
Google's CEO Eric Schmidt told the Wall Street Journal last August—and this is not a parody—"I actually think people don't want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.... The power of individual targeting—the technology will be so good it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not been tailored for them." But it isn't just what you eat or what you buy. Google will control serendipity: "Serendipity—can be calculated now. We can actually produce it electronically." And the next step? "You really want to go from syntax to semantics, from what you typed to what you meant.... I think we will be the world leader in that." That is, the world leader in telling you what you meant.
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Eric Schmidt, meet Doris Boitnott. You're made for each other. Who knows? As the various types of paternalism grow, they may burst from the cocoons of government and private enterprise and marry into a new and overwhelming entity. Each seems to be led to the other by a force greater than either. Otherwise, for example, how to explain the government's passion for expanding bandwidth? Only 1% of bandwidth is consumed by anything other than gaming (55%), and TV, movies, and video (45%). These things cultivate passivity. They root you to the chair, hold your gaze, and either entirely suppress your input or channel it into pre-programmed Hobson's choices. Why then is expanding bandwidth a public obligation?
With the dawning of 1984, many felt relief, because—just as in the '50s and '60s it was assumed that by 2001 there would be hotels of a sort on the moon—they had entertained the possibility that 1984 might be a surveillance dictatorship, and it wasn't. But now the sheep are falling all over themselves to get into the pen. Though the gates are still open, it would be so easy for the world's Doris Boitnotts and Eric Schmidts to swing them closed, and that must not be allowed to happen.