Friday, July 08, 2005

The Public Good is a Tyrant

Anyone who reads Krugman seriously and closely can see for himself how manifestly absurd most of his arguments are. But it's fun to point it out sometimes. Example:

In today's America, proposals to do something about rising obesity rates must contend with a public predisposed to believe that the market is always right and that the government always screws things up. You can see these predispositions at work in an article printed last month in Amber Waves, a magazine published by the Department of Agriculture. The article is titled "Obesity Policy and the Law of Unintended Consequences," suggesting that government efforts to combat obesity are likely to be counterproductive. But the authors don't actually provide any examples of how that might happen.
And the authors suggest, without quite asserting it, that because people freely choose obesity in a free market, it must be a good thing.
"Americans' rapid weight gain may have nothing to do with market failure," the article says. "It may be a rational response to changing technology and prices. ... If consumers willingly trade off increased adiposity for working indoors and spending less time in the kitchen as well as for manageable weight-related health problems, then markets are not failing."

I don't think anyone serious is arguing that obesity is, in itself good. If Krugman's quote is fairly representative, the authors clearly suggest, in fact, that it is a bad, calling taking obesity along with less physical labor a trade-off. In a tradeoff, something is lost for a greater good. (If Krugman's quote is unfair and stripped of important context, something I wouldn't put past him, then of course It's harder to tell. I'll read the article and update the post if there's any discrepancy worth pointing out.

The argument is actually quite simple: If people voluntarily do something, it's because they want to, you see.

How can medical experts who see obesity as a critical problem deal with an ideological landscape tilted in the direction of doing nothing?
One answer is to focus on the financial costs of obesity, and the fact that many of these costs fall on taxpayers and on the general insurance-buying public, rather than on the obese individuals themselves. (To their credit, the authors of the Amber Waves article do mention this issue, although they play it down.)

Do you see what's going on? The government took responsibility for -- i.e. saddled us with the responsibility for -- achunk of health care. Of course, it was supposed to be just economic control, the socialist fantasy. Government will fund universities -- but there will still be academic freedom. government will fund health care -- but not control Doctors' and patients' choices. Political campaigns will be publicly financed -- but the incumbents will somehow not use this to their advantage.

But then, you see, the choices you make become an economic matter affecting me -- because I'm paying for it, see. To fund museums, except when they display blasphemy, is to penalize blasphemy by means of the state; to punish it, in other words. To fund highways -- unless the drinking age is under 21 -- is to levy an extra tax on those states that shoose not to infantilize young adults.

And similarly, when government takes control of healthcare, it becomes clearly in the public interest to penalize people who spend public money on their vices, by doing unhealthy things and racking up big medical bills. With our corporatist (i.e. fascist) health care policy, other people pay for that, in the form of higher premiums.

So government money does mean government control, and there is no social freedom without economic freedom.

But why is freedom good? Because it lets people do what they want to. And that's what good is: it's what people want. "The good is that at which all actions aim." Aristotle said that thousands of years ago, in the beginning of the Nichomachean Ethics. It was the seed of liberty. Let's not let it die.

It is more important, however, to emphasize that there are situations in which "free to choose" is all wrong - and that this is one of them.

Oh. I see. How silly of me!

For one thing, the most rapid rise in obesity isn't taking place among adults, who, we hope, can understand the consequences of their decisions. It's taking place among children and adolescents.

Have you heard of "parents"? We entrust children to the care of their parents. This is due to parental, not governmental, neglect. But wait. Earlier in the column, Krugman wrote:

Public health activists were successful in taking on smoking in part because at the time corporations didn't know how to play the public opinion game. By today's standards, the political ineptitude of Big Tobacco was awe-inspiring. In a famous 1971 interview on "Face the Nation," the chairman of the board of Philip Morris, confronted with evidence that smoking by mothers leads to low birth weight, replied, "Some women would prefer having smaller babies."

In other words: If it makes you bigger -- it's bad. If it makes you smaller -- it's bad.

Some people have trouble controlling their weight without smoking. Krugman mentions the dramatic decline in smoking rates. But he ends his article by writing:

Above all, we need to put aside our anti-government prejudices and realize that the history of government interventions on behalf of public health, from the construction of sewer systems to the campaign against smoking, is one of consistent, life-enhancing success. Obesity is America's fastest-growing health problem; let's do something about it.

But isn't it possible that our obesity rate's increase is a part -- a necessary side effect -- of this "consistent, life-enhancing success"?

The real gem, though, is this:

And even if children weren't a big part of the problem, only a blind ideologue or an economist could argue with a straight face that Americans were rationally deciding to become obese. In fact, even many economists know better: the most widely cited recent economic analysis of obesity, a 2003 paper by David Cutler, Edward Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro of Harvard University, declares that "at least some food consumption is almost certainly not rational." It goes on to present evidence that even adults have clear problems with self-control.

We can't have freedom - people might do the wrong thing!

Of course people sometimes act irrationally. But I'm not people, and I'm not harmed by what other people do to themselves -- except when I'm forced to pay for it by socialists like Krugman.


Anonymous Blue Cross of California said...

Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system. Health insurance is a major aspect to many.

4:01 PM  

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