Better Ways to Promote Public Health

Where I part ways with a substantial fraction of the liberal intelligentsia is when it comes to paternalism. Tim Noah had perhaps the perfect distillation of this, talking about Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban:

What about when the nanny state instructs us to behave in accordance with its views of morality? I disagree with conservative aspirations to install the nanny state in my bedroom, but I wouldn’t necessarily begrudge the state its power to play moral cop elsewhere. I approve of the government prohibition against the selling of organs, and I would never want the government to stop discouraging illicit drug use and prostitution (though I might quibble with its methods). These prohibitions all constitute the government helping to define the nation’s collective values, which is entirely legitimate.

I was ragging on Will Wilkinson earlier, but I think he had the better of this argument:

I take it that Mr Noah disagrees with conservative moral paternalism not because it is paternalistic, but because it is based on a false picture of moral welfare, and is therefore unlikely actually to do us good. Having noted this disagreement, Mr Noah should have paused. If there is widespread disagreement about the human good, about what counts as a benefit or a harm, then paternalistic policies, even when they work as intended, inevitably restrict the liberty of some citizens in the service of conceptions of the good they reject. How is a paternalistic measure justified to us if we reasonably reject the idea of welfare on which it is based? If Mr Noah wants to say, “Well, that’s okay, because it does make you better off according to the true theory of the good”, we’ll want to know by what authority his conception of the good, and not ours, is established as the public standard for justified coercion. “Because I’m right and you’re wrong” is a vacuous, universal reply…

It’s worth remembering that liberalism is, at its roots, a philosophy of mutual disarmament in the face of intractable disagreement, and that its most fundamental principle is the presumption of liberty. According to J.S. Mill, “the burden of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition… The a priori assumption is in favour of freedom…” I’m afraid Mr Noah’s casual embrace of “baby authoritarianism” illustrates just how thoroughly the technocratic paternalism of American progressivism extinguished the liberal instincts of the left.

In short, any paternalistic measure should pass a high bar of evidence, and policies like a soda ban which are plainly elitist should inspire extra skepticism. (One measure that does pass this test would be bans against smoking in restaurants, since there is ironclad evidence that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer.) As it turns out, the evidence with regard to soft drinks and obesity is not at all clear, and the same goes for salt, Bloomberg’s other fixation.

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Moving on, if liberals want to promote public health, we should focus on areas where the government is already leaning on the scale in favor of certain behaviors. For example, the new transportation bill gutted subsidies for public transportation, walking, and biking in favor of more new highways. This is part of a half-century government project of stupendous spending on car-centered development. (Notable also how the conservative belief in the free market goes right out the window when it comes to valorizing white suburban dwellers against those sneering bike-riding, subway-taking liberals.)

The result of all this spending on cars was summed up memorably in a recent Slate piece on walking:

Why do we walk so comparatively little? The first answer is one that applies virtually everywhere in the modern world: As with many forms of physical activity, walking has been engineered out of existence.

Liberals would stand on much firmer ground if we confined our public health initiatives to reversing these sorts of trends (while carrying on with usual cleanup of lead, mercury, and their ilk, of course), instead of mandating class-coded restrictions on what you can eat and drink.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.