Archive for November, 2012

Myth of non-coercive paternalism

The Myth of Non-coercive Paternalism

Tibor R. Machan

The father-son team Robert and Edward Skidelsky–the former a recent biographer and avid champion of John Maynard Keynes, the latter a professor of philosophy–have written a book that joins the long list of anti-free market tirades available to us from which we can learn just how terrible it is for a society to be populated by men and women who are free to act as they choose, especially in the marketplace. The book, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life (Other Press, 2012), holds out nothing novel–one is able to find the theme in most neo-Marxist works such as John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, originally published in 1958 but reissued often and most recently, in 1999, by Penguin Books.

Non-coercive paternalism–joining other neologisms such as libertarian paternalism, coined by other critics of the free market system like law professor Cass Sunstein–is what the authors are calling for in order to curtail the ambition of Americans who want to achieve economic success and financial security. The passage that is for me most philosophically problematic reads as follows: “Economists have no ambition to remake human nature.” And they clear this up by noting that economists “take people as they are, not as they should be.”

True enough, most economists are realists but they do not fit the description that they take people as they are, only, not as they should be. As economists, of course, they are not in the business of helping to reform people, unlike priests or psychologists. And this is exactly the right way for them to be. But what is most important to note is that people cannot be made good, made to be as they should be, by others. That is the exactly the individual person’s task. This is what other similarly inclined authors such as Professor Robert P. George, who lays out a similar thesis in his Making Men Moral (Oxford University Press, 1993) and James P. Sterba in his How to Make People Just (Rowman & Littlefield, 1988) overlook. Karl Marx did think human nature could be changed but because history, through various revolutionary, dialectical leaps, will achieve this, not any kind of paternalists.

The fact that bears most directly on all this is that human nature has the potential for everyone to turn out to be good or bad or mediocre. That is just what distinguishes people from other living entities. They are self-made as far as their moral character is concerned. This is a point discovered about them back in ancient Greece when Plato wrote his famous dialogue Republic which, by is many interpreters understood to be a early warning against political idealism or utopianism. Don’t look to politics to improve human beings, look to human beings to do this for themselves.

Indeed, the point of civilized life is that people must achieve improvements in their lives, including their societies, by way of their vigilance. Paternalism is OK when parents practice it on youngsters who aren’t yet fit to govern themselves but once one reaches the age of reason, maturity, then paternalism breeds rebellion, mostly, the opposite of compliance.

Why then won’t Skidelsky & Son get it and provide personal advice for self-improvement instead of public policies aimed at changing human nature? Probably it has to do with the widespread inclination of intellectuals to copy technologists who do make changes in the world by manipulating it. But that doesn’t work with people, despite what these ambitious social engineers believe, the ones who follow the lead of the late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner who promoted behavior modification so as to improve us and society at large but met with no success in his efforts.

Because of all this the hope for non-coercive paternalism is futile. And Stalin and Hitler should have taught us this through their vicious experiments. But sadly intellectuals are equally resistant to changing unless they become convinced it’s worth doing it themselves. Until that day those of us who know better but remain vigilant, which is, after all, the price of liberty!

Advertising Defended (AGB talk)

Advertising Defended

Tibor R. Machan

Why is this important?
When we try to judge an activity or institution, we need to know what is its nature or purpose. If you travel, to tell how well you are doing it is necessary to know where you want to go. If one wishes to judge parenting or teaching or scholarship, one needs to know what these are so as to determine whether a given instance fulfills its nature, function or purpose.
Unless we know what advertising is, we cannot judge or evaluate it or what others claim about it. One might think here of what is involved in malpractice lawsuits. Malpractice presupposes standards of conduct. Without standards there can be no way to identify and distinguish what is and is not proper conduct, including in a craft or profession.

What is Advertising?
Before answering, let’s consider what advertising does. In a typical ad, people are told of or shown various possible benefits of some service or product, usually with the aid of a gimmick or two. The gimmicks are meant to focus our consciousness and to call attention to the likely benefits of the service or product being advertised.
From this we can conclude that advertising is a form of promotion – moving something ahead positively. It is a call to people to pay attention to some service or product being offered for sale, just in case they may then come to want it.
Advertising is a natural extension of commerce and marketing: the promotion of what is being produced for sale.

Advertising as an arm of Business
Institutions are extensions of human activities, organized, structured, formalized. Governments formalize self-defense and conflict adjudication; marriages formalize romance and family life; education formalizes teaching, learning and scholarship. Business is the formal expression of commerce, commerce made systematic, efficient. This is one fruitful way of understanding institutions.
Commerce, in turn, is conducted because one may well obtain benefits from it, via good deals. Commerce is, then, a form of economic prudence, making sure one gains advantages of certain (exchangeable) kinds by interaction with others who seek to do the same. Mutual advantage seeking in matters of consumption and production is what amounts to commerce and when formalized it comes to doing business.
For commerce to take place most proficiently the parties need to promote what they have to offer in exchange, they need to call their wares to others’ attention. Without this they will have produced in vain and will lack the resources to consume. So they need to advertise. And business takes this a step further by developing advertising into an adjacent institution, indeed, into a profession or specialization.

Morality and Human Institutions
Now to tell whether advertising can be conducted ethically, it has to be clear that commerce and business are themselves morally appropriate. Why is it important whether commerce is morally OK? If by this is meant whether when one embarks upon something, one is acting rightly, not wrongly, one is being decent or upright rather than vile or evil, then the issue is crucial for us to be sure we live decently and that our profession and what we utilize for making it successful do not demean us as human beings.
Suppose one thinks of joining the US Army, the Peace Corps or Microsoft Corporation. Debates can ensue about whether these are good things and whether one does right by joining in. Pacifists criticize members of the military for having joined what they consider a morally flawed institution. Maybe the Peace Corps is imperialistic, invasive. Maybe corporations are materialistic and aim blindly for profit. Critics suggest this, as they suggest the moral impropriety of bull fighting, boxing or animal experimentation – they allege that these and many other human activities are morally wrong.
Socialists and communists think business is wrong. People should abstain from commerce and engage, instead, in sharing resources with one another. Profiteers are deemed little better than rapists or child molesters. The reason is that according to socialist and communists – and indeed many others, though less explicitly – advancing oneself or one’s wares via exchange is wrong – one should not embark upon self-enhancement, private enterprise, by exploiting the opportunity of gaining from what others need and want. One should always think of the welfare of the community or society or even humanity and act accordingly. Anything that does not aim for this is morally wrong.

Morality and Commerce
But if socialists, communists and others are mistaken, how would we tell? We would need to have some idea as to what makes something morally OK. And this is a tough terrain to explore – philosophers and theologians have done it for centuries. Yet some came up with better answers then others, even if later these answers were reconsidered, even rejected by new generations.
If morality is a tool for human beings to live a good life here on earth, then the anti-commercial moral attitude is a mistake. Commerce enhances, very often, one’s ability to live a good life. Accordingly, advertising does no less. It is a means by which one facilitates the effort to live prosperously and as such it is morally OK, indeed. It is no less morally OK than going for a medical check-up or watching one’s diet. No less so than driving carefully and getting exercise. It is taking care of one’s well-being – a form of the virtue of prudence or its subdivisions of industry and economy.

Pitfalls of Advertising
Advertising can be excessive, as can be attention to one’s health or nutrition or physique. Yet, oddly, the most extensive manifestation of advertising occurs in a medium that is not really private, not through and through, namely, television. The more natural, normal forms of advertising occur in magazines and newspapers, where there has been less of a monopoly historically than on broadcast television.
Advertising can also involve tastelessness, demeaning imagery, deceit, distortion, stereotyping, etc. But none of this is indigenous to advertising.
Sadly, in a cultural atmosphere wherein a schizophrenic attitude prevails about commerce and business, advertising is also looked at askance: rewards are given for interesting examples of it but as an institution it is not respected as, say, medicine or education is.

The Source of the Trouble
Is there a schizophrenic attitude about commerce in much of Western Culture? One need but consider how much business success is depended upon for not just ordinary human prosperity but for those institutions where people tend largely to demean commerce, namely, higher education, the arts and so forth. And then one can reflect on the reputation of people in commerce – the dealer, the trader, the salesman, the manager, and so forth. Many theologians, philosophers and other members of the literati regard all these with moral suspicion.
Why, basically, is this the way commerce and, in consequences, advertising are regarded? The quick answer, albeit probably quite right, is also a very controversial one.
When human beings regard a part of themselves, namely, the mind or spirit, as otherworldly and the rest, namely, their bodies and all that is associated with the body, mundane, and when the former is deemed noble while the latter base, business will suffer. It is no accident that Jesus became violent only against moneylenders in the temple, despite the fact that there were many other sinners there, many hypocrites and others who demeaned the house of God.
There is a similarity between how business and sexuality are viewed. Both are desired but not admired. There is a naturalistic version of this, as well. If the mind is deemed to be superior to the body, this will tend to regarding only activities and institutions that serve to elevate the mind as morally worthy. The body is but a means to the worthy, lofty goal of exercising the mind. This is just how Plato and even Aristotle saw it and thus viewed commerce or retail trade (morally) inferior or of mere instrumental value.
Advertising is meant to advance commerce or business and if these are deemed to facilitate the baser aspects of human life, there is no mystery to why they are viewed with suspicion and even moral disdain.
However, living virtuously amounts to, among other matters, making sure one flourishes as a human being. And human beings are natural – they are rational animals – then flourishing includes living as a successful biological entity. It requires, among other things, a balanced approach to caring for oneself, of living prudently.
Commerce, then, would be, as a rule, a way to pursue and fulfill the goal of prosperity, of wealth, something that is a serious means by which to make one’s life on earth flourish. A rational animal isn’t to be satisfied by mere survival but by flourishing as such an entity, which would include partaking of many of life’s possibilities, including art, science, leisure, travel, entertainment and the like, all of which are unattainable without effective, well conducted commerce and business.
If, also, advertising enhances commerce and business, this shows that advertising is, as a rule, a morally respectable arm of these fields of human endeavor.

Some Sources of Hostility to Advertising
One source of the hostility toward advertising is the notion that ads manipulate us as if were puppets on strings. Some people believe that human beings are completely malleable – clay that can be molded by psychological techniques, gimmicks and so on. When somebody is charged with a crime, defense attorneys will often argue not that the accused didn’t do it but just that the accused couldn’t help himself: if somebody cannot help doing what he does, he can’t be guilty. Nor can he be praised, however. And if that’s the case, we’re all just per-programmed robots.
Yet, underlying the whole ethical framework of human life is our awareness that people ordinarily can choose. This would be evident even in your taking me to task for making such a claim: if you criticize me for something I do, you are assuming that I could have done otherwise.
One famous critic of advertising is the late John Kenneth Galbraith, a Harvard University economist, who was an ambassador to India under the Kennedy administration. As he put it, “An even more direct link between production and wants is provided by the institutions of modern advertising and salesmanship. These cannot be reconciled with the notion of independently determined desires, for their central function is to create desires – to bring into being wants that previously did not exist.”[1]
This idea has had an impact on how many academicians think about advertising. They treat it as a weapon directed at people who are helpless to resist. But it isn’t, and they aren’t. Indeed, one of the reasons advertising has to be cleverly designed is that people can ignore it. They can walk away from commercials in a jiffy, even from the best of them. That’s also why advertisers target their audience. They try to reach the folks who are already disposed to buy the kind of thing they have to sell.
In the real world as we normally perceive it, we can tell very easily that advertising is not at the root of our desires. If we disdain sports, it doesn’t matter how many commercials for surfboards, jerseys, and Monday night football that we see. They just bounce off us. We go buy a book instead.
F. A. Hayek argues as much when he points out that “Professor Galbraith’s argument would be easily employed, without any change of the essential terms, to demonstrate the worthlessness of literature or any other form of art. Surely an individual’s want for literature is not original with himself in the sense that he would experience it if literature were not produced.”[2] Of course any response to the things of the world requires that those things first exist, prior to our response to them! There is an objective reality out there, but that is no bar to free will!
Perhaps, for Galbraith, independent determination of desire means one must create all the products and services one might possibly want from scratch, ourselves; which would, paradoxically enough, vastly curtail the range of products and services from which we could select. (Society would at least be less affluent in that case.) But his attitude makes sense only if the whole of human action is a matter of stimulus provoking automatic response. And if that were so, there would be no additional onus of culpability that could be imputed to advertising and to the business that produce it. Advertising would be just as moral, or non-moral, as any other activity we engage in.
Fortunately the situation is otherwise. Far from regarding their prospects as sheep, most ads assume, at least implicitly, that the customer will do some serious examining to find out if the product or service really does suit his purposes.

The Benefits of Advertising
Advertising benefits both producers and consumers. It makes possible mutually beneficial exchanges that might not have taken place otherwise.
What do advertisers accomplish for themselves when they successfully pitch a product? They will have found a way to make a living.[3] Consider the poor benighted telemarketer, calling you up in the middle of dinner with a proposal to switch your telephone service.
Do I hang up on the guy, myself? No. Partly because I’m in business ethics and think about this all the time, I take a moment to say, “No, I’ve got a service I’m perfectly satisfied with. Thank you, bye-bye.” (As opposed to: “Get off my phone, you asshole!”) Even if I’m not willing to attend to a salesman’s message, I at least extend some courtesy, because I appreciate what they are trying to do: earn a living. That is a bond between us. After all, I’m trying to earn a living too. If I pitch my latest book at a cocktail party I don’t want to get bopped on the nose by the guy who is perfectly happy with the latest Stephen King novel and doesn’t want to hear about anything else.
In this age of broadcasting, advertisements are often presented to many millions more than are in the market for the product or service being promoted. As one views a television or listens to a radio program, an ad interrupts and this tends to annoy us (our annoyance is, incidentally, yet more evidence against the notion that advertisers can simply reconstitute our preferences at will). Most viewers, during most commercials, would rather continue attending to the program; the ads thwart this goal.
Once in a while, of course, an ad aimed squarely at one’s own needs and wants comes up, and then the benefits of advertising for human beings qua consumer begin to be clear. So perhaps one can be tolerant of ads that miss the mark. (And are there no mute buttons?) In other contexts, when ads are more narrowly cast, they are not so annoying. Indeed, sometimes readers of specialized magazines will flip through looking only at the ads.
Advertising also benefits us in cases where we never buy any of the products being advertised. Thanks to TV ads, we don’t have to pay for network television – and the cost of cable television is less than it might be. Without ads, we would not enjoy access to so much free information on the Internet. Internet access itself is now available at no charge, as long as you’re willing to put up with some pop-up ads. Advertising is thus one modern method for spreading the benefits of new products and services from the few to the many.

Advertising and Prudence
Once both parties have done their level best to find out what will be prudent for them to do, but not before, they may properly unite in trade.
Not everyone is always prudent, it’s true. Some people just see ads and without further ado yield to the desire to get what is being offered; they buy on impulse. Impulse buying most closely resembles the phenomenon that Galbraith and others think advertising engenders all the time. But people who buy on impulse don’t have to buy; they merely have chosen to do so carelessly. (And even then, the impulse buyer’s imprudent purchases are confined to the realm of his already chosen values and interests – clothing, lottery tickets, food, or books.)
Just as having the capacity to reason does not mean that one will always reason, so having the capacity to be prudent does not mean that one will always be prudent. Participants in the market can fail to be alert, fail to pay attention to their own responsibility in a trade. They may place all the responsibility in the hands of the other party to a trade and then, afterwards, when they are eating the losses, blame that other party, not themselves. But they are complicit in so far as they neglected to pay sufficient attention to what was going down.

What’s a Good Ad?
The primary responsibility of an ad is to call attention to a product in such an effective way that people will have difficulty overlooking it.
Again, why is it morally okay to try to capture people’s attention this way? Because it’s important for us to prosper. That means it’s important for us to promote the services or wares that we have to offer for sale. If human life is a value, advertising is a value. It is a positive good.
Advertising is not selfish in any cruel, nasty, or brutal sense of the word; rather, it is self-responsible. People in business must make this effort to take care of themselves, to do justice to the prospect of succeeding and prospering in their lives. Everybody benefits thereby – the customers, the people who own and run the business, and the employees whom businesses are able to hire when the advertising does its work.


[1] John Kenneth Galbraith, “The Dependence Effect,” The Affluent Society.
[2] F. A. Hayek, “The Non Sequitur of the ‘Dependence Effect.’”
[3] A little compassion for junk ad mailers might be appropriate here, given what they are trying to do: make a living. They’re trying to call out, “Hey! Here we are! Please, consider us as you embark on trade.”