I have a “nutshell” summary and critique of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty now up at e3ne.org. Excerpt:
Mill thus defends freedom of conscience, speech, and lifestyle on completely “practical” grounds, but he leaves some significant loose ends in On Liberty. For instance, there are lots of examples of “harms” that the government shouldn’t regulate, like breaking up with a longtime boyfriend or girlfriend. It may cause emotional damage to break up with someone, but there’s no justification for forcing someone to stay in a romantic relationship. So the Harm Principle may establish a necessary condition for government regulation but not a sufficient one (in other words, the government should regulate nothing but harms, but not all harms).
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On Sarah Conly’s book, Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism (must quote the whole thing):
Human beings are irrational. As Sarah Conly writes, “The truth is that we don’t reason very well, and in many cases there is no justification for leaving us to struggle with our own inabilities and to suffer the consequences” (pg. 1).
Fortunately, however, while human beings don’t reason well, government officials do. This is because they are able to be more objective than we are. Again, Conly explains this very well: “Since we do better at estimating efficacy when we are in a relatively objective position, government, insofar as those in it are not the ones who are at present tempted by the rewards of the poor decision, can help us do better to reach our own, individual goals better than we would do if left to our own devices” (pg. 10).
And indeed, our history proves Conly’s claim, as objective government officials have acted with the reason and balance of experts who are not tempted by direct involvement in the questions being decided: the Sedition Act of 1798, which led to the imprisonment of newspaper editors who criticized government. Indian removal. The Fugitive Slave Act. The Dred Scott decision. The Wounded Knee massacre. Plessy v. Ferguson. Jim Crow laws. The firebombing of Tokyo. The mass internment of Japanese-Americans. The secret bombing of Cambodia. Drone attacks on Pakistani wedding parties. Indefinite military detention. The wisdom of government is virtually infinite, and has created a world of steady progress. When we act individually, we are irrational and reckless. When government officials act upon the human society from which they ascended, they do better to help us all reach our proper goals.
Indeed, this is but a partial list, as it omits the deep wisdom of, say, the European state. In Europe, too, government officials acting from relatively objective positions have been able to create clear examples of rational progress. Like miles of trenches cloaked in poison gas, say, or a uniquely efficient rail system in Poland.
For some final, powerful examples of Conly’s argument at work in the real world, just read the very first sentence of her book, which explains the problems a paternalistic government could help us to solve: “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.”
See? Too much debt! No savings for the future!
We individuals and societies are reckless, but government would never behave like that.
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BBC News Magazine:
Mass panic and hysteria swept the United States on the eve of Halloween in 1938, when an all-too-realistic radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds sent untold thousands of people into the streets or heading for the hills.
The radio show was so terrifying in its accounts of invading Martians wielding deadly heat-rays that it is remembered like no other radio programme.
Most newspapers printed dispatches sent by wire services such as the Associated Press, which extrapolated widespread fear from small numbers of scattered, anecdotal accounts.
Newspapers, moreover, reported no deaths or serious injuries related to The War of the Worlds broadcast: had panic and hysteria seized America that night, the mayhem surely would have caused many deaths and injuries.
For newspapers, the so-called “panic broadcast” brought newspapers an exceptional opportunity to censure radio, a still-new medium that was becoming a serious competitor in providing news and advertising.
The myth of mass panics seems to underlie a lot of bad policy-making. Remember the overreaction to Katrina? So it’s pretty unsurprising that the oft-told tale of mass panic during Orson Welles’ broadcast turns out to be completely false. People are more resilient than paternalists give them credit for.
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This proposal in the UK to tax “fatties” highlights once again how once government gets deeply involved in funding health care, the pressures to control people’s lifestyles become significant. This is the same argument we hear from supporters of sky-high cigarette taxes, smoking bans, seat-belt and helmet laws, ad nauseam. “We all pay for it.” If only we didn’t.
More on the public health scam.
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Having taken on left-liberals in my last post, it’s only fair to take a shot at the right too. Here‘s the Deseret News editorializing on why our recommendations for Utah are wrong:
The report’s authors are clear about their definition of freedom. “In our view, individuals should be allowed to dispose of their lives, liberties, and properties as they see fit, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others,” they write. But few personal behaviors can intrude more on the rights of others than drinking alcohol and gambling… [T]he enormous alcohol industry, relentlessly pushing everything from glamorous images to new products such as sweet-flavored alco-pops, would, if left unfettered, eventually rob more people of freedoms.
The line taken here seems to be that if you make bad decisions that decrease your life satisfaction, you have lost freedom (to whom?). And if you encourage someone to make a decision that might be bad, you’ve violated his rights. For the benefit of the Deseret News, I’ve compiled a new list of policy recommendations for Utah based on this new definition of freedom:
1. The enormous credit card industry gets people hooked on cheap credit, and the debt they take on means less freedom. Enact a state monopoly of credit.
2. Television and books encourage people to sit at home rather than get up and exercise, resulting in an epidemic of obesity and, of course, violating their victims’ rights. Tightly regulate their use.
3. Many people get involved in mistaken relationships when they are young, sometimes resulting in children and often resulting in heartbreak. Clearly these young lovers have taken away each other’s freedoms. Ban fornication. Fund a virtue police to monitor young couples. Iran has a system that works, at least compared to decadent, unfree societies in the West.
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From Peter Ubel in Free Market Madness: Why Human Nature Is at Odds with Economics—And Why It Matters (Harvard Business Press, 2009):
The government could, theoretically, change the finances of the food industry enough to halt the obesity epidemic. […] Given that information alone may not suffice to encourage better eating habits, policy makers should consider yet another approach to combat obesity—an approach that structures people’s choices in ways that will lead them to make better choices, not through incentives or coercion, but through emotional or even unconscious psychological forces. (pp. 214, 217-18)
Ubel is a “physician and behavioral scientist” at the University of Michigan. He is apparently unaware of the manifest difficulties with which the word “theoretically” is fraught in the first sentence above; he is likewise apparently unaware of the frightening implications of a medical doctor and behavioral scientist proposing that the government use “emotional or even unconscious psychological forces” to manipulate its citizenry into making what he or it deems “better choices.”
Perhaps someone should remind Dr. Ubel that such things have been tried with a fair amount of vigor and dispatch during the twentieth century; perhaps he would like to inquire into the results?
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The City of Boston and Carney Hospital in Dorchester, Massachusetts are banning the sale of sugar-sweetened drinks at their facilities and events. This includes the much-loved Gatorade.
Mayor Thomas “Mumbles” Menino justified the ban by arguing: “I want to make this a healthier choice, the easier choice in people’s daily lives, whether it’s the schools, the work sites or other places in the community.” Hmmm….as someone on a national radio show that I stumbled onto while driving today nicely pointed out, Menino (and the Carney Hospital) isn’t exactly allowing people to make a choice in what they buy in those places since he’s banning the sale altogether. This isn’t the case of him making it easier to make that choice by offering healthy alternatives or placing those alternatives in more accessible or attractive places for consumers; he’s restricting the ability of people to make any choice of what they buy on city property. To defend Menino, people still can choose in the fullest sense — but he’s imposing some not unsubstantial costs on them (for example, it is a real pain to have to bring soda to a city dinner or local football game just to have a Coke with your rubber chicken or luke-warm hot dog).
Now people being generally rational actors who will go to great lengths to satisfy their preferences, my guess is that we’ll just see a lot more folks walking down the street from their city office to the convenience store to buy what they really want or planning ahead and bringing soda onto the premises (which will probably inspire the good mayor – riffing off of some of Mayor Bloomberg’s actions a few hours south – to think about banning the consumption of such evil products on city property). Or people will buy things they don’t actually prefer – so that will shrink total welfare.
But I guess that Mayor Menino – like all public servants – just knows what is best for us, and he’s going to do everything he can do (within the limits of political acceptability) to make us comply.
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