I have voted for two libertarian candidates for President, believe in drug legalization and have done many things that would have gotten me caned in Singapore, a Catholic school or anyplace someone happened to be near a cane. I've fought the left's paternalism of the body and the right's paternalism of the soul. But recently I've been wondering if my political assumptions are wrong, if America might not be better off under a dictatorship. I've also been wondering if somewhere deep inside, I secretly want to be caned.
My opinion shifted after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned smoking in bars. At the time, I believed having a scotch in one hand and a butt in the other wasn't just essential to the pursuit of happiness but a necessary means for Jersey women to let people know that they weren't going home alone. I was outraged by Bloomberg's hubris. Was he also going to outlaw short skirts, hair spray and singing along to "Livin' on a Prayer"?
But almost seven years later, smoking in bars and restaurants seems insane. It went from dictator Bloomberg's horrible idea to something you wouldn't think of doing anywhere, including Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong and Istanbul. Not only do I go to far more bars now, but I even bring my baby. Which is something Bloomberg should probably also make illegal.
Social change may happen fast, but no one stops polluting unless an Indian cries on TV. My point isn't that activists and advocates don't shift the way we think; public opinion shifts in various ways, the prolonged explanation of each of which has made Malcolm Gladwell millions of dollars. My point is simply that, everything being equal, a dictator can make an Indian cry fastest.
And people love a good dictator or at least get over their hatred of one pretty quickly provided that the dictator doesn't put up too many pictures of himself. We instinctively object to new forms of paternalism, but we also quickly accept them: laws requiring seat belts and motorcycle helmets, forced retirement savings through Social Security, waiting periods for marriage and gun licenses. Though you're not hurting anyone else, you can't commit suicide, have sex with your dog, drink in public, do drugs, be a prostitute, swim at a beach without a lifeguard, eat unpasteurized cheese or do most things that are crucial to the plot of independent movies.
President Obama should probably get a little bit dictatorial up in here. He's the only person in the U.S. unaware that we elected him dictator, giving him both houses of Congress and the major television networks whenever he wants them. Instead of ignoring people's objections until they get socialized medicine and realize they like it, as England's leaders did, Obama is worried about seducing Olympia Snowe so he can say his health bill is bipartisan. Do you know how long it takes to charm people from Maine? They're uptight white people coated with a hard exterior made from other uptight white people. While Obama negotiates on climate change, the Chinese government has forced China's entire tech industry to focus on energy efficiency, and soon we'll all buy Chinese products because they'll be far cheaper to power and people can stay mad about poisoned babies and puppies for only so long. The lesson for Obama isn't that we didn't like George W. Bush because he bossed us around. We just wanted to be bossed around far, far better.
In fact, we need a dictator to do all kinds of things. I want a law making all Internet browsers' default setting block pornography and for that setting to be difficult, but not too difficult, to change. I want all alarm clocks, when they go off, to mention going to the gym. I think there should be limits on when you can sue, a ban on guns not used for hunting, parenting licenses enforced by social-services visits, more obstacles to post-first-trimester abortions and a European-size tax on gasoline. Soda should be sold in containers no bigger than 8 oz. People should pay for their garbage by weight. And their plane tickets.
Despite what you're thinking, I don't want to be the dictator. That's mostly because I'm already prone to bad haircuts. But also because instead of an actual dictator, I think what we need is to recognize that social mores require government nudges like the ones Bloomberg creates and Obama adviser Cass Sunstein advocates. We live in a connected age in which our liberties bump against one another. I know this is all easy to say since I'm not a smoker, a soda drinker or a columnist whom politicians listen to. But in an age of overwhelming choice, some dictatorial direction would help. Plus, then Obama wouldn't have to be on TV so much.