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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

MARGARET WENTE

Please save me from my saviours Add to ...

My husband has started to hoard light bulbs. He has a stash of old-fashioned 100-watters in the basement. Ottawa has decided they’re bad for the environment, so they’re going out of circulation as of January. He figures he can barter some of them with other people who don’t want to shell out $30 for an environmentally correct light bulb.

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The new light-bulb policy will not save the planet. But it will provide new jobs for light-bulb regulators and other officials who know what’s best for us. I suspect these people are closely related to the people who decided that school cafeterias should start serving tofu instead of French fries. This brilliant policy has had predictable results: It does little to improve students’ health, and cafeteria sales have plunged. It’s a bonanza for nearby fast-food outlets.

How obliged are the authorities to save us from ourselves? That question is at the heart of many public policy debates, including the new one over whether to expand the CPP. If you are a semi-upper-middle-class person who hasn’t saved for your retirement, then you’re in for a shock. The question is whether the government should cushion that shock by forcing you (and everyone else) to save more. My personal view is no – especially because it would mean extra taxes on the young, who’ve already been screwed enough. The government has a duty to save you from outright poverty, but after that, you’re on your own.

Sadly, minimalism in government has gone out of fashion. Today, it’s the maternalists who rule. They believe that people are like children who, if left unattended, will spend all their allowance and leave the spinach on their plate. Since the people can’t be trusted to act in their own best interests, the authorities must nag and nudge and regulate us into doing so.

Some regulations are highly desirable, of course. Seat belts and smoking bans come to mind. But the mommies never rest. The California city of San Rafael (home to the most enlightened people in the world) has enacted an ordinance banning smoking in your own home, if that home shares a common wall with someone else’s home. This will have about the same effect on health that light-bulb bans will have on global warming, or French-fry bans on obesity, but it makes the mommies feel important.

Not to be outdone, the city council of Vancouver (having resolved all other pressing civic issues, apparently) has effectively banned the door knob. From now on, all the doors on new houses will be equipped with levers, which are more ergonomically friendly for the arthritic and disabled. You might think people could be trusted to make this choice for themselves, but evidently not.

The epidemic of lifestyle maternalism has spawned a whole new school of thought about how to get people to behave better. When do you use sticks and when will carrots work? U.S. President Barack Obama’s favourite regulator is Cass Sunstein, the famous advocate of “nudge theory.” This is the idea that governments should make clever interventions to improve your choices. But not everyone appreciates the difference between subtle manipulation and coercion. As Mark White, one critic, wrote, nudging “is not about helping people make better choices – it’s about getting people to make the choices policy makers want them to make.”

And that’s what bugs me. Who do these people think they are? I’d be happy enough to change my light bulbs if I thought it was a meaningful thing to do. But it isn’t. The toll on my good nature – trying to figure out all the new bulb types, determining which ones make things look hideous – will be high, while my contribution to energy efficiency will be approximately zilch. Not only that, but some do-gooder in the company cafeteria took away my favourite ice-cream bars and replaced them with frozen yogurt.

 

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