17 May 2010

Beyond Freedom and Control: Autonomy Supportive Politics

The child who grows up without the laws, education, or health care is not free: he's been abandoned. There is a difference.

I demonstrated my stupidity again this weekend trying to look smart. (Which might, upon reflection, be the most effective route to looking stupid.) I tried to argue for universal health care with a man who, I’m pretty sure, has been a Republican since he was 12. We agreed that catastrophic health care would be a better option. I think it would be best to simply tell every American that they will not go bankrupt because of bad health and ensure that their personal expenses don’t exceed, say, $5,000. (And yes, this would have to be adjusted for people who are even more poor, but not as much as one might think. But I digress.) We disagreed about whether there ought to be universal health care regardless of the plan.

For me it is simple. If a 19 year old living on his own, working a job without benefits, should get cancer he should not have to die for lack of money. The market is a marvelous mechanism for distributing cars, designer jeans, and glazed donuts. It should have no say in whether someone lives or dies. (And if you agree with this, you do believe in universal health care. You may simply disagree on the extent of it and details.)

And reflecting on this, I realized that one of the most influential books I’ve read turns out to define my politics as well as my ideals for managing, teaching, or parenting.

Edward Deci wrote Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. In it, he offers three models of parenting or managing. The first is controlling, where the locus of control is with the parent or manager and where the child or employee is expected just to follow the lead. This is actually pretty effective at certain stages of development. The other model is abandonment, where the parent or manager essentially doesn’t care, leaving the child or employee to work things through on her own. Some call it freedom. Again, this could be effective at times. But Deci argues that the real purpose of any kind of leadership is to work towards autonomy for the individual. He advocates autonomy-supportive behavior that is intent on creating the ability for self-directed behavior. This is enabling and like the abandonment model shifts the locus of control to the individual and like the controlling model offers help.

For me, this seems like a wonderful model for government. Things like public education, health care, and police protection enable individuals to live their own lives. A good government does not control or abandon its citizens: it enables.

Conceptually this is such a simple thing that I would imagine everyone would agree with it and perhaps all political disagreement traces back to differences in opinion in trade offs. (For instance, conservatives who oppose Obama’s health care hate being told that they have to buy some health insurance plan. They find it controlling. I guess the same could be said of seat belts or motorcycle helmets. For some, the law is controlling because it makes so many people do what they wouldn’t. For others, it is enabling because it leaves so many more brains in skulls, giving individuals the possibility of autonomy.)

But for me, realizing the applicability of Deci's model to politics was an epiphany of sorts (what Hyrum Smith of Franklin-Covey would call a “blinding flash of the obvious”), helping to define so many of the policies that are important to me, from generously funding basic research to education to making it easier for people to start businesses.


Thomas said...

The only real way an individual can control his health care options is through his democratically elected government.

Giving private corporations the power over life and death, as dictated by the profit margin, renders the individual powerless as a medieval serf.

Mark T. said...

Won't giving the government the power over life and death render the people who become doctors as powerless as medieval serfs too?

And regarding profit motives, I'd encourge you to investigate the philosophies of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman :-)

David said...

I'm with you on government enabling an individual but we probably disagree on "enable." It will always mean to me to get the hell out of the way and not interfere with yearning, learning, earning, etc, for anyone willing to work toward a goal. In short I'm an objectivist and hold Ayn Rand's views mostly. Government has a few basic responsibilities defined in our Constitution and gov activities should be confined to meeting those.

Side note since federal law in AZ is so controversial: one is NOT immigration or border control. This country is for everyone willing to come and work or contribute provided they understand their only entitlement is opportunity.

nunya said...

"...But for me, realizing the applicability of Deci's model to politics was an epiphany of sorts..."

Seriously grinning here.