Tuesday 25 August 2015

On wowsers

This is my submission to Australia's senate inquiry into personal choice and community impacts. I tried to keep it general and concise...

The issue of paternalistic lifestyle regulation is broad, but I would like to make two general points that I hope the committee will bear in mind during its investigation. The first relates to ethics, the second to costs.

A large part of the modern 'public health' agenda involves trying to stop adult consumers from engaging in behaviour that could pose a risk to their health. These activities do not typically pose a threat to the health of other people and, in a free society, the decision to partake in them should be a free choice for the individual, unencumbered by nudges and barriers from government.

The 'public health' industry is founded on two important lies. The first is that the choice to engage in potentially risky behaviours is not truly free because of external influences. The second is that the consequences of risky behaviour are substantially borne by people other than the individual involved. From these two lies, the 'public health' lobbyists conclude that in order to protect society, they need to protect individuals from their own poor decision-making.

Nobody would claim that people always make wholly informed and rational choices, free from any external influence. However, this applies as much to politicians and pressure groups as it does to private individuals. At heart, 'public health' lobbyists are - to use a wonderfully evocative Australian term - wowsers. They are unable to comprehend why anybody would want to use nicotine, get drunk or eat excessively and so they conclude that people do these things because they have somehow been coerced.

Advertising plays a large in their fantasy of corporate coercion. There is a huge amount of economic evidence showing that advertising does not increase the size of a given market and is only useful in increasing market share for a given company. Wowsers are either unaware of the evidence or choose to ignore it, preferring to believe that businesses somehow control the docile masses through clever marketing. At its lunatic extreme, this extends to a belief that logos and colour schemes on packaging can compel people to take up a notoriously risky and expensive habit.

The wowsers' obsession with putting taxes on products they don't like indicates that they also believe that low prices are coercive. This stems from a crude understanding of the law of demand, which says that demand tends to fall as prices rise. From this, the 'public health' lobbyists assume that higher prices help people to follow their 'true' preferences.

Like many of the wowsers' beliefs, this idea is contemptibly stupid. It should be obvious that depriving people of information (by banning advertising) and narrowing people's options (by raising prices) makes it more, not less, difficult for people to make a free choice. It should be quite obvious that wowsers are not really interested in free choice. They are only interested in people making the 'right' choice, as defined by the wowser community.

The claim that lifestyle choices place a burden on society and, therefore, that society should act to eradicate them, is equally false. It may amuse the committee to read some of the studies which claim that smoking and drinking place a multi-billion dollar cost on society to see how laughable these 'costs' are. Suffice it to say that lost productivity is not a cost to the taxpayer, nor are the emotional costs of being offended by a drunk, nor the many other ludicrous opportunity costs, intangible costs and internal costs that are crowbarred into such reports. I recommend Eric Crampton et al.'s working paper The Cost of Cost Studies to get a flavour of the nonsense peddled in this area.

In short, if somebody wants to eat too much and get fat, that is up to them. It is, quite simply, none of the government's business. The same applies to drinkers and smokers. Clearly, there are people who believe that there are too many obese people and too many smokers, but this has about as much relevance to policy as the fact that there are people who think there are too many atheists. No doubt some people believe that society would be better if there were fewer atheists, or fewer cats, or fewer football games, but in a liberal democracy we do not use the law to impose one person's preferences and prejudices over another's.

In short, a movement that seeks to regulate a person's lifestyle for their own good is unethical. It is also damaging to individuals and therefore to society. Single issue pressure groups are, almost by definition, interested in one aspect of life above all others. The 'public health' lobby regards longevity as the key goal of life and is prepared to sacrifice all other considerations. Whereas ordinary individuals make trade offs between pleasure and risk - costs and benefits - single issue campaigners see no benefits from the activities they seek to proscribe and ignore the costs of their policies.

Costs are often ignored because they are difficult to measure. The enjoyment people get from eating, drinking and consuming nicotine (their consumer surplus) are hard to quantify but are clearly important. They are, after all, the whole reason why people do the things of which the campaigners disapprove. Whatever benefits to health a policy may bring, the loss of consumer surplus that results from the activity being curtailed must be included as a cost.

Other costs are more obvious, but are downplayed or denied by the campaigners. Tax rises and over-regulation fuel the black market. Sin taxes take a disproportionate share of income from the poor. Excessive rules and bureaucracy damage businesses. Cycle helmet laws discourage people from cycling. Restrictions on e-cigarettes keep people smoking. 'Public health' lobbyists deny that these negative unintended consequences exist and devise studies to prove that black is white. I could give many examples of junk science and advocacy-based quackery being published in peer-reviewed journals on everything from obesity to plain packaging. The committee may wish to ask why so much of it is directly funded by the taxpayer.

This last point is worth underlining. The 'public health' agenda is the product of a small elite who think they know best for the masses. It has never been a popular, grass roots movement. The people involved have every right to voice their opinion and agitate for political change, but taxpayers should not be forced to fund their activities.

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