Protestants, Progressives and Paternalism

If you’re a freedom lover, high scores are good. If you like telling people how to live their lives, low scores are good. Virginia ranks 39th. Source: Mercatus Center.

To put Steve Haner’s recent post about the Virginia lottery in broader perspective, I have displayed the “freedom from paternalism” ranking of the 50 states published this year by George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. Virginia ranks 39th in freedom from paternalism. The flip side of that finding is that the Old Dominion ranks as the 12th most paternalistic state in the country.

By “paternalistic,” Mercatus researchers Russell S. Sobel and Joshua C. Hall, professors at the Citadel and West Virginia University respectively, mean state policies that the political class has decided are for your own damn good.

If you don’t like a busybody government, then New York is the state from hell, with a ranking in a class all by itself. Vermont, Washington, and California are other hard-core busybody states. If you’re a freedom junky, head to Wyoming, the least meddlesome state in the country. Arizona, Nevada and Kansas also are among the least intrusive.

The Mercatus ranking breaks down paternalism into three buckets of policies — selective taxes, “saint subsidies,” and miscellaneous bans and regulations. Virginia scores pretty darned meddlesome across the board. On the less paternalistic side, Virginia has no soda tax and a low cigarette tax but it has a killer tax on distilled spirits.

The ranking encompasses such policies as plastic bag bans, happy hour restrictions, mandatory motorcycle helmets, fireworks restrictions, blood tests, social gambling and Internet gambling. To the point of Steve’s post about the state lottery, Mercatus does not include the presence of state lotteries, horse race betting, or casino gambling.

Why is Virginia so paternalistic? It is often observed that Virginia is either the southernmost Northern state or the northernmost Southern state. I’d hypothesize that we have incorporated the most meddlesome traits of both North and South — Bible Belt blue laws inherited from our Protestant past and the Northern progressives’ instinct for economic regulation on environmental, consumer and other grounds. One way or the other, if you’re a libertarian, you live in enemy occupied territory.

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12 responses to “Protestants, Progressives and Paternalism

  1. Was in Kansas earlier this month – went into a Walmart to buy some wine.

    Nope… they can’t sell wine apparently….

    So picked up a beer instead – where it was taken from me at the self-checkout where I was informed that it was against the LAW to buy beer on Sunday!

    Took me back to those days in Virginia and it’s REAL heyday of “paternalism”!

    Now the ban on “weed” and other recreational drugs is not only Grade A paternalism..but people get ripped 18 ways from Sunday by our criminal justice system! Now THAT’s “paternalism” on steroids!

    I’m not sure I classify taxes as paternalism… it’s more along the lines of where and what govt can tax without too much outrage so they do pick stuff like cigarettes and alcohol and not food and drugs… New cars are a favorite so are high dollar homes and businesses with the sales tax and BPOL.

  2. The loonies in California are banning company cafeterias because the elected officials think it’s better for a company’s employees to leave the building and buy lunch locally.

    Pre-Salt Lake City Olympics in 1994, I was in Salt Lake on business. The waiter was not permitted to ask me if I’d like a drink, including a beer or glass of wine. I had to volunteer and make an unsolicited request. And I had to get a permit to buy a beer in the lounge. I think I still have that in a drawer somewhere.

  3. This is an informative entry that explains an underlying limitation of “so called” conservative, but in fact libertarian thinking. What’s interesting is that it dismisses any pragmatic concern for community — local, state, national or, particularly global — and the obligations that go with effective concern. Even Adam Smith assumed certain community values and behaviors — attributes he found no reason to question.
    This is a column reflecting an obsession with rights over responsibilities, and if some states require responsibility in economically impractical ways, then go for remedies — especially economic remedies, like CO2 taxes, or an equitable tax system not driving up deficits, or universal health care that makes economic sense with justice.
    Ironically, or course, we’ve become far less “paternalistic” in my life time. Restrictions on women’s, African American, and LGBT lives have steadily gone away. Buy wine and beer on Sundays or whenever in increasing numbers of states Hell, have stores open on Sunday! Now marijuana is getting legalized.
    Meanwhile, we have a government that denies science — environmental, health — in budgetary and regulatory cuts. And while our world heats up — our west, Japan, Europe, here in the east — we deny climate change. We refuse to take the collective actions required to address it effectively (albeit sometimes usefully).
    This, and the above comment do not strike me as serious commentary on the state of affairs, on the paternalism that endangers us from countries around the world, Russia included, and from a leader who excels in lying and in failing to understand community welfare.
    Of all the concerns that ought to occupy the pursuits of thoughtful, caring people, paternalism should be at the bottom of our list.
    A disappointing entry.

    • Great comment.

    • Wow, the Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) klaxons are blaring based on your comment. The article was an analysis of relative paternalism by state governments. It had nothing to do with President Trump and President Trump has nothing to do with it. I didn’t like or agree with President Obama but he didn’t invade my every waking and sleeping moment.

      After a couple of paragraphs you get onto the idea of community standards. OK, I’ll buy that. If SanFrancisco wants to impose a tax on sugary sodas in an effort to alleviate childhood obesity – good for them. Let’s see if it works. However, the Federal government doesn’t represent any community because the United States isn’t a single community with a single set of standards. Uncle Sam is best advised to meddle as little as possible in my opinion. Virginia is not a community either. It is a completely arbitrary geographic subset of the USA. Kentucky was once part of Virginia but no more. Ditto West Virginia. Arlington County was a part, then not a part and then a part again. Virginia, like most states, is an accident of history. So, it isn’t a community either. The people of Fairfax County have a lot more in common with the people of Montgomery County Maryland than Montgomery County Virginia.

      So, why not let communities make decisions in accordance with the standards of their communities? If the good people of Henrico County don’t want to add a local tax to cigarettes why should that bother me (Just as long as they are willing to self-fund the obvious health consequences of keeping cigarettes cheap). If Fairfax County want to put a $1 per pack local tax on cigarettes – why not?

      The real paternalism in Virginia is the nanny state in Richmond insisting on controlling what every region and locality does.

  4. Hey, the lottery was approved 30 years ago. You can order booze on the VA ABC website. Who’s paternalistic? Not Virginia. Not even me. I just want it to be honest about a couple of things, like the lottery doesn’t really fund education (unless you accept that other tax dollars are being displaced so the real winners are local property taxpayers.) Also those big prize numbers have to be reduced by income tax, set offs, etc – but nobody will advertise that the house is really taking more than half. Also poor people are big targets of the marketing.

    They could design games where 95 percent of the gross returned in prizes.

    And finally people might be told that there are better ways to wealth. People who don’t understand probability also fail to grasp compounding. Found a couple of simple calculations and DJIA since September 1988 (with dividends reinvested and not adjusting for inflation) is up 12 percent annually compounded. If you did $50 bucks a month into an index fund over the same 30 years, you now have $150-160 grand maybe? Is it paternalistic to want to teach a little math? Instead of that ad campaign I get clown wrestling. Sheeesh.

    • The paternalism is that the lottery is OK and online horse betting is OK while casino betting is illegal and online sports betting is illegal. Meanwhile, that paternalism just doesn’t work up here in Northern Virginia. Drive through the parking lot of the MGM National Harbor Casino and tell me how many Virginia license plates you can count. Hell, there’s even a water taxi from Old Town Alexandria to the casino to make it even easier for Virginians to hand their money to Maryland.

      Unnecessary paternalism is bad but incompetent unnecessary paternalism is worse. Someone needs to tell our political elite that their lottery-is-ok, horse-racing-is-ok but casino gambling is immoral theory isn’t stopping millions of Virginias from gambling in casinos. It’s just giving the jobs and tax revenue to Maryland.

  5. I suspect there is a grey area when it comes to labelling something as paternalistic versus something that enhances economic efficiency. 1) For example, cigarettes cause negative externalities. A tax on cigarettes reduces second hand smoke and thereby enhances economic efficiency. That part of the tax on cigarettes is not paternalistic. 2) Another part of the cigarette tax is simply to raise revenue. Taxes on inelastic demand products like cigarettes are more efficient than taxing some other products. Perhaps most of the motive for taxing cigarettes (and liquor) arise from these reasons, and not paternalism.

    • Great point!

    • At some point, sin taxes function as de facto prohibition, which, in turn, generates criminal activity. For example, smuggling lower-tax cigarettes into places like New York. I think we, as a nation, learned that prohibition of spirits during the 1920 and early 30s did not work too well.

      I must confess Malcom Baldwin’s comments seem a bit confusing. But I’m guilty from straying from the topic at times.

  6. I was perhaps being too philosophical, focused on the point of government in the social arena. “From the future” thankfully understood. But it’s not the first time I’ve caused confusion! Conversation, not the more-constraining emails/texting, is the remedy.

    The fact is, I found the entry weak on facts and analysis, as well as political philosophy.

  7. Now we’re getting somewhere. Cigarettes cause cancer. Period. Virginia’s low cigarette tax and low cap on what counties can add to that tax are designed to help the Richmond area retain its tobacco employment. The benefits of the low tobacco tax are localized while the costs are state-wide. Hard to understand the so-called conservative philosophy of secretly taxing everyone for the health consequences of poor decisions like smoking instead of taxing the smokers themselves. Where is the individual responsibility in that? Also hard to understand the so-called conservative philosophy of allowing polluters to harm the value and quality of other people’s property. What happened to respect for property rights? Why is Alexandria allowed to build more housing units when their sewer system is a disaster that overflows into the Potomac River during a hard rain? Why can Alexandria violate the property rights of those down river?

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