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Can the state know what's best?

China's new paternalism

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Those who live in liberal democracies might gasp at China’s new laws limiting the time children can play videogames and banning private tutoring. These laws are what we call paternalistic: they limit personal freedoms with the justification that they promote the good of the individual. But before we dismiss such laws as the product of authoritarianism, we need to recognize that even liberal democracies allow for paternalistic laws. We make children go to school, ban them from drinking alcohol, and force adults to wear seatbelts. The problem  then isn’t paternalism itself, it’s whether paternalistic laws actually benefit people or not, argues Sarah Conly.

China has introduced two new laws affecting young people that have gotten a lot of attention around the world. They are limiting video game time to three hours a week, and they are eliminating for-profit tutoring. The first of these would no doubt elicit cries of agony from kids in the western world, and while that is less of an option for young people in China, we can assume many silent screams. The second rule may not garner the same emotional response from young people, but nonetheless will stop them (and their parents) from doing what many of their parents have hitherto paid a lot of money - $120 billion each year  -for them to do. These regulations are without a doubt paternalistic. The question remains whether they are good rules or bad. The answer, I think, is no and yes.

Paternalistic laws are laws that make you do something that’s good for you that you wouldn't otherwise do. Some people object to paternalistic laws for that very reason--they make you do things you don't want to do, even when what you wanted wouldn't have hurt anyone else. The idea is that the lawmakers know what’s best for you better than you do, and have the right to enforce that, and to many people, especially in democratic countries, that is an unacceptable intrusion into personal liberty by the state.

When we judge paternalistic laws we need to consider at least two things. First, if the new regulation works, will the outcome actually be good for us? Second, will the regulation work?

 

Before dismissing China’s new laws as the product of authoritarian government, there are at least a couple of things to keep in mind. First and foremost, they apply to young people, those under 18. We are in general pretty open to the government making young people do what is good for them, whether they like it or not - we make them go to school and keep them from smoking and drinking, for example. No one, as far as I know, has embraced the idea that children should have total self-determination. Second, rhetoric aside, we often endorse paternalistic rules for adults. While there was initially resistance to laws requiring seat belts, for example, by and large most people have come to think this is a good regulation.  Some believe that seat belt laws are justified only by the cost to others of the medical care for those who fly through the windshield, but that isn't really the rationale, since those costs are actually minimal when spread through the population. We have these laws to prevent you from hurting yourself. So, even liberal democracies can and do accept paternalistic practices.

Not all laws that interfere with our freedom, with the excuse that they promote our good, are justified. When we judge paternalistic laws we need to consider at least two things. First, if the new regulation works, will the outcome actually be good for us? Second, will the regulation work? That is, can we effectively and efficiently (without too much cost) implement this rule? When it comes to seatbelts, the answer apparently was yes. Using seatbelts really prevents catastrophic harms, and using them is simple and painless. What’s more, the law has been surprisingly easy to implement. The threat of fines has, for most people, been sufficient to bring about a change in behavior, without needing widespread surveillance of actual seatbelt use. So, good.

We are in general pretty open to the government making young people do what is good for them, whether they like it or not - we make them go to school and keep them from smoking and drinking, for example.

The new Chinese rules are, as said, paternalistic. The idea seems to be that playing more than three hours a week of video games keeps kids from doing more rewarding things, may interfere with education in a way that hurts them, and helps them to become addicted to video games in a way that will consume them even when they are adults. The ban on for-private tutoring is somewhat more complex, but again the idea is to benefit students. The argument is that first, for-profit tutoring, which can cost Chinese parents up to $200 an hour, is available only to those who have money, which means that those without money- the majority- are unfairly disadvantaged in their pursuit of higher education. Furthermore, allowing this tutoring means many more hours are spent on schoolwork, and this in turn increases pressure on kids who do get the tutoring, and reduces the time they would spend on less stressful activities.

Are these good regulations or bad regulations? There has, naturally, been a lot of discussion of whether these rules can be implemented effectively, and the answer seems to be yes, but only up to a point. Kids might use their parents' accounts to play video games, if they have compliant parents. Those who are rich enough might still be able to pay enough for illegal private tutoring to entice some tutors to take the risk. However, the fact that a regulation is not 100% effective does not mean it is a bad regulation. It's not clear that there has ever been a regulation that was 100% effective. Some people cheat on their taxes despite associated sanctions, including jail time. Some people commit murder, even where that means risking the death penalty. It seems to be human nature that there are always some people who are willing to take a chance to engage in a bad practice that comes with terrible risks. We don't, however, give up on laws and regulations simply because they won't be 100% effective. The idea is that a law is successful if it is effective enough to warrant the costs of implementation. While we don't yet know all the ways people may try to get around these regulations, so far the indications are that they would substantially reduce the hours spent playing video games and the money spent on private tutoring, without great costs involved in doing that, so we may, for now, say they are sufficiently effective.

So, while many parents do not understand young people's preference for video games, that in itself does not mean they lack value, or that eliminating them would lead to better use of kids' time.

But , assuming they are effective, do we want what these regulations will give us? Is it good for students to reduce their video game hours to three hours per week? And are they better off with fewer hours of tutoring? Our initial reaction, or at least the initial reaction of older educated people who haven´t actually played many hours of video games, may be that reducing video gaming is good, but reducing tutoring is bad. This is because older people tend to think that video gaming is a waste of time, and that education, even if everyone can´t have it, is good. The belief is that video games are addictive and unsatisfying, merely engendering a desire for more video games. Tutoring, at least, teaches people, and while it would be best to allow everyone more education, we don't want to bring about equality by dumbing down those who, for whatever reason, can learn more. That would be reminiscent of the Kurt Vonnegut short story "Harrison Bergeron," where especially talented ballet dancers have weights attached to their legs so dancers who are less good won't feel inferior.

However, this initial reaction is wrong. While older people don't generally game, this, obviously, doesn't mean it isn´t terrifically entertaining to those who do. If it is fun, and stimulating, and relaxing, it isn't time wasted. It need not be more wasted time than reading novels, of which we generally approve. Nor is it necessarily anti-social. A gamer isn't physically present with others, but he or she is nonetheless interacting with others. While some may believe, with false nostalgia, that life before the internet consisted of meaningful personal interactions, those of us actually alive then remember that much of the time we were just lonely teenagers. Thus, if we eliminate video game time, there is no reason to think that young people would be interacting in person. Nor can we assume that they would spend those hours reading Anna Karenina rather than comics.  As to the question of whether video games are addictive, this involves an in-depth understanding of addiction, and how that is to be differentiated from an activity which is simply preferred. So, while many parents do not understand young people's preference for video games, that in itself does not mean they lack value, or that eliminating them would lead to better use of kids' time.

There is no reason to be appalled by the fact that the new Chinese rules are paternalistic. Paternalistic regulations can be a very good thing. We need, however, to be sure that they are leading us to what is actually good for us.

Tutoring is different. Tutoring in the Chinese institutional context is pursued--always allowing, of course, for individual exceptions-- as a means to an end: future success. And while education is a good thing, intensive tutoring simply as a means to doing well on an exam is not the best way to engender a love of learning or even to retain what you have learned. We want to cultivate lasting knowledge, and the critical thinking that allows us to acquire more knowledge, and a love of knowledge for its own sake, not just as a step to a better job.  We don't want people to think that a university education is just a meal ticket to be forgotten as soon as the student gets a job. Granted, financial considerations play a role in wanting to do well in school, but we shouldn't teach that learning is just a bitter pill to be swallowed on the way to a bigger paycheck. And as mentioned above, this a method of getting ahead which is available only to those who already have advantages, and which, given the limited number of university spots, makes it much harder for those with less money to get into university.  This means that in addition to paternalistic reasons for preventing the use of expensive private tutoring there are third-party justifications for this as well: it gives an unfair advantage to people who are already in a position of superior power. Even liberal democracies have begun to worry about the role money plays in university admissions (viz. recent scandals about parents' bribing their kids' way into university) and limiting the power of money here is a good goal.

So, there is no reason to be appalled by the fact that the new Chinese rules are paternalistic. Paternalistic regulations can be a very good thing. We need, however, to be sure that they are leading us to what is actually good for us.  

 

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