Last night, I spoke by video link to Australia's 'Nanny State Inquiry'. These were my opening remarks...
My hope is that the enquiry will do at least two things. Firstly,
look at how much money the government is giving to special interest
groups. Secondly, carry out a cost-benefit analysis to see if the slew
of nanny state policies introduced in Australia in recent years has been
worth the time, money and effort.
Looking specifically at the so-called ‘public health’ movement,
which is the source of most lifestyle regulation, there are two
essential points to make. The first is that it has nothing to do with
healthcare or medicine, rather it is a political movement for wowsers
and the government has no business funding it.
The second is that the ‘public health’ lobby demands government
intervention in markets which are functionally perfectly well and, by
trying to stop people doing what they want to do, they inevitably impose
unnecessary costs on society. Any cost-benefit analysis of nanny state
would find more costs than benefits if it was carried out correctly,
which is to say if it counted pleasure and enjoyment as benefits.
To elaborate on my first point, ‘public health’ can do useful
things. There are times when individuals can only secure health benefits
for themselves by working collectively through government. Clean water,
vaccinations, environmental pollution and speed limits are all examples
of this. If I want to avoid being in a drink-driving accident, it is
not enough for me not to drink-drive, everybody else must do the same.
Similarly, it is not enough for me to vaccinate myself against TB, I
need herd immunity. Those are legitimate public health goals.
The situation with drinking, vaping, smoking, fast food and fizzy
drinks is totally different. If I don’t want to eat at McDonalds, I
don’t need the government to make it more expensive, I just don’t eat
there. If I don’t want to use e-cigarettes, then I don’t use them. I
don’t need the government to ban them. These are private lifestyle
choices which are, by definition, not public. The choice is mine, the
risk is mine, the benefits are mine and if I come to harm, that is my
problem, not anybody else’s.
The ‘public health’ lobby is, therefore, getting involved with
issues that are none of its business. It differs from medicine in three
important ways. Firstly, you have to qualify as a doctor to practise
medicine. Most of the people in ‘public health’ are not doctors, they
are social scientists, humanities graduates or simply concerned
citizens. Secondly, in medicine you need the patient’s consent. The
public has never consented to be treated by so-called public health
professionals. Thirdly, in medicine the patient is ill. What you get in
the world of 'public health' is people who are perfectly healthy being
‘treated’ without their consent by people who are essentially practising
medicine without a licence.
The current generation of ‘public health’ campaigners has little or
nothing to do with medicine or healthcare. It is simply a collection of
wowsers trying to tell people how to live their lives. Meddlesome people
have always existed and they have a right to their opinion, but the
government should not be funding them.
With regards to costs and benefits, economists tend to believe that
government intervention is only necessary when the market has failed,
and that any intervention in a functioning market will make things
worse. There is no market failure in the areas that the ‘public health’
lobby most often pokes its nose into. The fact that a product carries an
element of risk is not in itself evidence of a market failure, nor is
the fact that some people might find an activity immoral or disagreeable
a market failure.
The main market failures to look for are negative externalities,
consumer ignorance, consumer irrationality and monopoly. These are all
largely absent when it comes to drinking, smoking, vaping and eating.
There is strong competition within each of these industries, there is
widespread awareness of any risks, the risks are largely confined to the
individual, and there is no evidence that consumers are particularly
In other words, the lifestyle choices people make before the nanny
state gets involved are the choices they want to make. They are the
choices that give them maximum benefit. After the nanny state gets
involved, they are forced to either settle for their second or third
choice, or to pay more and get less benefit from their preferred choice.
Paternalistic legislation ramps up the costs and shrinks the
benefits. The ‘public health’ lobby get around this in a very simple way
- they pretend that there are no benefits to be had from the things of
which they disapprove. They claim that people don’t actually enjoy
smoking or vaping, or don’t enjoy getting drunk.
If you ignore the pleasure and enjoyment people get from these
activities then you can always make it look as if nanny state
legislation has a net benefit. This, however, requires you to ignore the
whole point of why people do these things in the first place. Only a
blinkered fanatic would do that.
There are many other costs associated with wowserism in addition to
making the lives of individuals more miserable. There are costs to
businesses from over-regulation, paternalistic taxation clobbers the
poor, there are costs to society when black markets spring up, and there
are costs to health when the government acts on bad advice, such as
forcing cyclists to wear helmets and banning e-cigarettes.
without the unintended consequences of ‘public health’ legislation, the
intended consequence of stopping people doing what they want to do is
enough for us to know it would fail any serious cost-benefit analysis.