Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Thin End Of Nanny's Wedge: When Will They Get The Point?

You know how I criticised the government’s nannified approach to our freedom in the last blog regarding our ability to smoke in pubs and restaurants. Well coincidentally – and it is a coincidence – when catching up with some TV from a few days ago, I saw someone taking it even further to the extreme. The BBC's Daily Politics show featured Professor Vivienne Nathanson of the British Medical Association (*see video at bottom of page). Professor Nathanson wants a nation in which nobody smokes – so she is campaigning to have cigarettes banned outright. When asked why she is singling out cigarettes as opposed to other unhealthy things like alcohol and sugar, her answer was terse: "Because cigarettes are never good for you".

Her confusion lies in only thinking of smoking in terms of bodily damage. Yes, if you only want to think about smoking in terms of the effects of physical degeneration on body parts, then the professor is quite right; cigarettes are never good for you. But only a fool would do that.  Professor Nathanson is presumably aware that people still smoke even though they have full knowledge of how bad cigarettes are for them. With this knowledge she ought to have a clue that there is a reason people smoke in spite of knowledge of its degenerative effects – they enjoy doing it. Clearly people who voluntarily hand over money to buy and smoke cigarettes have accounted for cigarettes “never being good for you” in terms of health – but have still concluded that the positive effects of smoking outweigh those negatives.

Contrary to Professor Nathanson’s misapprehension, smoking is good for just about everyone that smokes (the exceptions being addicts trying to give up and failing). It is only “never good for you” if you forget all the reasons that it is good for you – but it’s a sign of delusion to be so small minded. Think about it. If you consider only the costs, then just about everything is bad for you. Take drinking water. By only counting the costs you'd find drinking water is a pretty disagreeable action - it brings about increased urination, it causes time lost in the toilet, it engenders increased chlorine levels in your stomach, and it causes gradual damage to your detrusor muscle in the bladder. Drinking water - one of the most innocuous activities we can undertake - has risks and it has costs, but no one thinks it's bad for you in net terms. Quite the contrary, in places where water is scarce we do all we can to make it plentiful.

Governments interfere too much
It’s unsurprising that people like Professor Nathanson want to trespass into other people’s free choices so much – she’s only aspiring to do what the State does on a frequent basis.  This is the simple and straightforward reason why I'm a libertarian, and why I hold the view that a small government overseeing a laissez faire society is best.  People know how to run their lives better than any government. That's not a blanket truism, but it's true for the vast majority of people, and it's true in the majority of ways that relate to how we live our lives by making cost/benefit analyses and exercise of freedom of choice.

Governments continually interfere in our daily transactions - sometimes for the better, but often to our detriment. When costs outweigh benefits an intervention to curb those costs is mostly good. When benefits outweigh costs an intervention to curb those benefits is mostly bad. This is obvious, but hardly ever considered in politics. Politicians are quick to interfere or ban things that have costs, which often involves failing to appreciate that humans can decide for themselves whether those costs are worth paying.

As we saw above, when it comes to policy, the question is not whether something has costs. Every activity has costs. The question is whether the costs are worth having for the benefits. Politicians, sociologists, and all sorts of other people spend their time debating whether things like smoking, drugs, alcohol, prison sentences, speed limits, and so forth should be a matter for the law or not. Most government involvement in these issues is about focusing on the costs and trying to minimise them through legislation. This isn't always as good as it sounds, because without a proper balance, policies are bound to be fraught.

Governments are always going on about the welfare of its citizens - but the irony they miss is that a lot of what they do compromises the welfare those citizens would otherwise enjoy. Take an obvious and frequent example - the price of alcohol. Every government policy is based on the notion that alcohol is bad for its users. It is, but it is also good for its users, because the people who drink alcohol wilfully choose the pleasures and accept the costs. Just like in the above case with smokers, alcohol drinkers are people for whom the pleasure of social drinking outweighs the risk of death, liver damage, addiction and a shorter life. If they valued better health and longer lives they'd drink less or not at all. If you're in the first group then drinking lots of alcohol delivers a net gain; if you’re in the second group then drinking lots of alcohol delivers a net loss.

This wisdom extends to countless other examples. Let’s pick another. Is weight lifting good for you? That depends on how you much value the pros (the exercise, the gym companions) and how much you dislike the cons (the exercise, the gym companions). If weight training confers a net gain on your life you will lift weights; if it doesn’t, you won’t. The quality of welfare and the benefits of liberty are synchronised, as people voluntarily undertake the activities they prefer.

Because it is impossible for the State to know how much every individual values health, exercise, weight training, smoking, alcohol, casual sex, and so forth, it is impossible for the government to know better than its citizens what is good for them. A good government would understand this, and seek to minimise its involvement in our lives to enhance our welfare and liberty.

But…and here's the important but….there is one caveat, though, to out and out libertarianism – people’s decisions are affected by the information they have. A lot of people are informed enough to make rational choices about whether they want to drink alcohol. But some people are not. If they’ve lived in a house in which drunkenness was the norm, or in which information about healthy living was scarce, they may not properly understand the benefits or costs. Misinformation increases the likelihood that you’ll either underestimate the costs or underestimate the benefits.

So clearly, for this reason, being a libertarian doesn't mean adopting a 100% erosion of State influence. Many regulatory laws are superfluous, but not all of them are. We need laws that protect factory employees from working in dangerous conditions unbeknown to them. If two people know the details and engage in a mutually beneficial transaction, then State involvement is mostly superfluous. But if Jack is employing Jill and putting her life at risk due to faulty equipment or dodgy wiring, I don't want Jill to be devoid of protection through the law. Where the law works for me is when it guards people against harms that live outside of anything that could be defined as a mutually beneficial transaction with transparency**. Aside from that, I want people to be free to live their lives without all this unnecessary interference from politicians who don't know better than us what's best for us, and don't have the same motives as we do for bringing about our own betterment.

* You can see the video here

A case in point is drugs (see this past Blog post for more). I'm still not 100% sure how I feel about the issue of drugs like cannabis and their legality. I understand the liberalising argument that if Jack wants to smoke weed, and Jill wants to take LSD, and Geoff wants to get drunk, and Mary wants to ride a horse, and so on, that they should be free to do as they wish provided it doesn't harm others. But a case in point where that law should, in my view, act to protect its citizens is with prohibition against heroin. Heroin does harm more than just the user - its addiction is behind so much crime - and that wouldn't change if it was legalised, because as far as I can see, for the addict demand for the drug exceeds affordability, so they turn to crime, or in the case of young girls, they get sold into prostitution. So although small State works well for me in areas in which people have lucid self-determination, I think there are quite a lot of people that do require a strong State that can legislate of their behalf. Maybe that's not an argument against legalising cannabis, but I feel it is an argument against legalising heroin.

** Photo courtesy of www.smh.com