Economists take it as a given that individuals know their tastes and preferences better than anyone else and that people’s wellbeing is optimised by allowing them to pursue happiness in their own way. In general, this means free markets. As the economist John Cawley explains: ‘In the absence of market failures, the operation of free markets maximises social welfare. Thus, if there are no market failures, government intervention can only decrease social welfare.’
Even if you are not a fan of the market economy, coercive paternalism tramples on the doctrine of individual liberty which, as John Stuart Mill famously wrote, says that ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.’
In these two sentences, Mill described the golden rule than underpins a liberal, tolerant and free society. That is the kind of society in which we supposedly live. Indeed, we are often told that we live under free market neoliberalism. Why, then, is coercive paternalism so rife in the areas of drinking, smoking, vaping, gambling and – increasingly – food and soft drinks?
We’ve got the hang of this whole freedom thing when it comes to religion, sexuality and free speech (except on campuses). I might think that you will have a better life if you read different books or believe in a different God, but it would be wrong of me to impose my way on life on you. Few people in Britain today would disagree, but while we reject paternalism in these areas, we increasingly have a blindspot when it comes to activities that pose a risk to our health.
Part of the reason for this is that the paternalists do not identify themselves as such. They usually prefer the term ‘public health campaigners’. Most of what they campaign for doesn’t actually involve public health in the traditional sense. Obesity is not a public health issue. It’s a private health issue. So too is drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. Vaping and gambling are not even private health issues but the public health lobby gets involved with them anyway. ‘Public health’ has been redefined to encompass any private behaviour that poses a risk to health, so long as more than a handful of people are involved. ‘Preventive health’ would be a more appropriate term but using the word ‘public’ has the political advantage of implying that the personal habits of individuals are suitable targets for state intervention when they are not.
What struck me when I was writing my new book Killjoys – published by the Institute of Economic Affairs today – were the lengths to which nanny state campaigners go to deny that they are paternalists. It is quite obvious that banning smoking outdoors and putting a minimum price on alcohol, for example, are not principally designed to prevent harm to others but are intended to deter adult consumers from risking their health with activities that they enjoy. And yet those who advocate such policies are prepared to use any number of excuses rather than admit this. They would sooner claim that they are somehow preventing industry from harming consumers, or protecting children, or tackling perceived market failures before they admit that they are acting in loco parentis.
Some of these justifications have a superficial appeal. No doubt there are many people who believe that the behaviour of adults should be policed in order to save the NHS money, even though economic analysis rarely supports that belief. It is certainly true that the behaviour of one person can affect another and we have the tools to deal with that by, for example, placing a Pigovian tax on the activity in question. But while ‘public health’ paternalists sometimes adopt the language of economists, their goals could not be more different. Economists want socially optimal levels of consumption brought about by efficient markets. Paternalists, by contrast, believe that the socially optimal level of consumption of nicotine, alcohol, sugary drinks and ‘junk food’ is approximately zero and that this can only be achieved by disrupting the market. A prominent ‘public health’ campaigner was recently quoted as saying that ‘good alcohol policy makes the market as inefficient as possible’.
There is, therefore, a fundamental conflict between the values of a free society based on liberal market economics and the values of the modern ‘public health’ movement. With the rhetoric stripped away, the latter can be seen as a form of hard paternalism which relies on unrealistic assumptions about individual preferences while failing to acknowledge the real benefits that people derive from engaging in risky pursuits. The mere fact that the ‘public health’ agenda requires so many punitive taxes and prohibitions strongly suggests that they are forcing people to act against their desires.
Many coercive ‘public health’ policies create their own problems, and the harm caused by regressive taxation and excessive regulation is by no means trivial, but the case against paternalistic lifestyle regulation does not rely solely on the most tangible adverse economic consequences. Using the force of law to push the preferences of one group onto another is not only economically inefficient, it is – to be blunt – immoral. You might say I’m making the wrong choice if I smoke cigarettes or drink more than the government recommends. If seen purely through the lens of health and longevity you might even be right, but so long as I am informed about the risks, there is no reason why I should act on your judgement rather than mine. There is, in fact, a good reason to respect my judgement more – because it is my life, not yours. I know what I enjoy and I know how much risk I am prepared to tolerate. You don’t.
This is why it is a bad idea to have anybody else – especially the government – making decisions for informed adults. If a person chooses to do something it is because they get a benefit from it. In economic terms, they enjoy a consumer surplus. If you make it impossible for them to do it, or make it more expensive, or even just make it less convenient, you are reducing their consumer surplus. In other words, you are making their life worse.
And because nobody else gains from them losing out, you are reducing the overall welfare of society. In other words, you are making the world worse. That’s why the nanny state is not just a nuisance. It’s fundamentally immoral.
Read Chris Snowdon’s new book Killjoys here.