When it comes to supposed threats to Americans’ freedoms originating in academe, conservatives often like to point out the mouldering Marxists in various humanities departments around the country. I am largely unconcerned, except to the extent that these professors impose ideological orthodoxy on their students or erode academic standards. No, a far larger and more imminent threat comes from the inherently politicized discipline of “public health.”
Formerly a discipline devoted to research on sanitation and epidemiology, public health is now more or less an explicitly ideological field devoted to ginning up panic over freely chosen, private behaviors and to cheerleading for paternalist government action to prohibit or discourage them. Take any fun activity enjoyed by those who are not urbanized, (generally) white, middle-aged, highly educated professionals – smoking, shooting, drinking, eating tasty food, calling a friend in the car, generally exercising “personal freedoms” – “public health advocates” are agin’ it. (Of course, you don’t see them agitating against marathon running or rock climbing or bungee-jumping or long-distance hiking or extramarital sex. Fun, risky things that urbanized, highly educated professionals like.)
The question the public-healthies (for short) never think to ask is: Does maximum health make people better off? If people are aware of the risks of an activity, and do it anyway, doesn’t that very fact show that they are better off being permitted to do it? Why is there a need to tax or regulate them into compliance with your preferences? If you think that people are not aware of the risks, why not restrict yourselves to educating them – in a sane, reasoned, non-hysterical way?
The new public-healthery has increasingly come to reject education in favor of regulation. Why is that? Simple: today’s public-healthery isn’t about people’s happiness at all, but about controlling people. The new “progressivism” is taking public-healthery on board in a big way. Look at the states and cities that lead the way on smoking bans, stratospheric tobacco taxes, gun control, salt bans, trans fat bans, soda tax proposals by governors, cell phone driving bans – you name it. They’re all “progressive” places – New York city, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, etc. Indeed, in my study of state policy ideology with William Ruger and Fait Muedini, we find that these paternalistic regulations are some of the most statistically significant correlates of state ideology.
The left is becoming less about labor activism and helping the poor – FDR-style liberalism – and more about soccer-mommery: making sure those “youths,” nonwhites, poor people, Southerners, etc. are less visible with their obnoxious habits and pastimes. The gradual vocabulary shift we’re witnessing on the American left – from “liberalism” to “progressivism” – is thus appropriate, because these attitudes are similar to those that underlay the early 20th century progressive coalition. The early 20th century progressives were mostly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific coast who were concerned about the growing power of immigrants and urban party machines. The reforms they advocated – from direct democracy to eugenics to prohibition – are all consistent with the objective of enforcing neo-Puritan, social gospel values and breaking the political influence of immigrant-dominated urban machines.
As the private sector union density rate has declined in the U.S. and the Democrats have had to reach out more to suburban voters to win elections, we have seen a sectional and class realignment that has concomitantly driven many working-class and rural voters into Republican arms. In my view, this shift is ultimately bad for Democrats, traditional left-liberals, and the country. The public-healthies are creating a backlash the more extreme their proposals become and the more hysterical their rhetoric over issues like second-hand smoke. We need only look to the ongoing popular backlash against global warming science to see what ultimately happens when advocates oversell their case.
The politics behind today’s public-healthery are sinister. They are driven by loathing of the poor, the overweight, people who shop at Wal-Mart and eat at fast-food joints, people with a Southern accent (who probably own guns and might even smoke) – the list goes on. Otherwise, why aren’t progressive-dominated governments trying to ban colorful local diners and casual-dining chains the way they are fast-food chains – even though the former often have higher-calorie food and don’t even report calorie counts to their customers? Of course, it’s the white middle classes who frequent quaint diners and TGI Friday’s.
So – I raise a glass of whisky and a cigar to the hope of a backlash against “public health,” a new Coalition for Fun.