Problems Don’t Call For Policies

The existence of a problem doesn’t beg for a policy.

A policy will probably make more problems than it solves, especially if the policy is political in nature. Political “solutions” usually come in the form of legislation; a counterfeit “law”. And even if it does somehow manage to solve the problem, it is unethical. Legislation always is.

The statist mind is always assuming every problem needs a policy to address it. When theft and coercion is in your tool kit, that’s the lazy way to approach it. Statist “solutions” are a band-aid, not a permanent solution.

If, like me, you rule out those statist approaches automatically you’ll need to find real voluntary solutions. Voluntary solutions will be more robust and longer-lasting, too. Partly this is because people are willingly embracing these solutions. No gun in the face is needed. With political “solutions”, when the political winds shift the gun often ends up pointing the other direction. All political “solutions” are subject to change every time a new ruler is holding the gun. That’s not a real solution. Not a long-term solution. You can do better.

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Dan Moller’s Governing Least

Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority is definitely my favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  Dan Moller’s new Governing Least, however, is definitely now my second-favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  The two books have much in common: Both use common-sense ethics to argue for libertarian politics.  Both are calm, logical, and ever-mindful of potential criticisms.  Both strive to persuade reasonable people who don’t already agree with them.  Both are packed with broader insights.  And despite these parallels, both are deeply original.

So what’s most original about Moller’s position?  Instead of focusing on the rights of the victims of coercion, Moller emphasizes the effrontery of the advocates of coercion:

[I]n my account libertarianism emerges from everyday moral beliefs we have about when we are permitted to shift our burdens onto others. In fact, my account intentionally downplays the role of rights, and is motivated by doubts about what we may demand of others, rather than outrage about what others demand of us.

The effrontery is most blatant when you speak in the first person:

Imagine calling a town hall meeting and delivering the following speech:

My dear assembled citizens: I know most of us are strangers, but of late I have fallen on hard times through no fault of my own, by sheer bad luck. My savings are low, and I don’t have friends or family to help. Now as you know, I’ve previously asked for help from you as private citizens, as a matter of charity. But unfortunately that hasn’t been sufficient. Thus, I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) owe me assistance as a matter of justice. It is a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, in order to help me. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts.

Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf. No, I insist that you help me to force your fellow citizens to assist me. It doesn’t matter if these others say to you that they need the money for their own purposes, that they prefer worthier causes, or if they’re just hard-hearted and don’t care. To the extent you care about justice, you must help me to force these others to assist me whether they wish to or not, since that is what is owed me in light of my recent bad luck.

Could you bring yourself to make this speech?

The fundamental objection to Moller’s position, he thinks, is to claim that governments have “emergent moral powers.”  But Moller firmly denies this.  Governments are just groups of people, so they are morally obliged to follow the same moral principles as everyone else.  While this may seem like libertarian question-begging, there’s nothing uniquely libertarian about it:

It is notable that many who wish to block rights-based objections to state action are nevertheless eager to enter their own moral objections to what the state does. Many of those unsympathetic to attacks on taxation rooted in individual rights also portray the absence of welfare provisions or various immigration policies as “unconscionable.” There is nothing inconsistent about this; the one set of moral claims may be right and the other confused. But the objection then cannot be based on the emergent moral powers of the state. We cannot both reject appeals to individuals rights on the general grounds that morality has nothing to tell us about what may emerge from government institutions, and then do just that, substituting our own preferred brand of interpersonal morality. Once we notice this, support for emergence should shrink drastically, since it will only come from those who think there are no policies of the state that can be rejected on fundamental
moral grounds. The non- emergence assumption per se has no particular ideological leanings.

But doesn’t common-sense morality admit that rights to person and property are not absolute?  Of course; exceptions abound.  Moller sternly emphasizes, however, that these exceptions come with supplemental moral burdens attached.  In his “Emergency” hypothetical, for example, you steal $1000 under duress.  What then?

I propose the following non-exhaustive list of residual obligations for cases like Emergency:

Restitution: although I didn’t do wrong, I must repay the $1,000 if possible, perhaps in reasonable installments.

Compensation: to the extent you are otherwise harmed by my actions, I should attempt to compensate you. For instance, if I smashed your windows getting in or forced you to incur some loss because you had to come home at short notice, I must compensate you at some reasonable rate.

Sympathy: it is incumbent on me to convey, if not an apology for my (permissible) actions, at least sympathy for the harm I have caused you. (“I’m very sorry I had to do that” would be the natural if slightly misleading phrase.) I cannot offer a Gallic shrug at your distress and announce, “I did nothing wrong— it’s your problem” as you survey the wreckage of your home. To do so would exhibit a serious character flaw.

Responsibility: my obligations are not just backward looking, but forward looking. If I can reasonably foresee that some action of mine will put me in the position of facing an emergency that will then render it permissible to harm you, I must take responsibility to avoid such actions if possible. I should not think that I have less reason to take responsibility because I can avoid harms by transferring them to you instead. And failing to take responsibility weakens my claim to impose costs on others when the time comes.

A related principle is worth mentioning as well:

Need: my warrant for harming you depends on how bad my situation is. I cannot harm you if I am doing fine already merely in order to improve my position still further. I may be permitted to take your $1,000 to avert a physical threat, but not in order to make a lucrative investment in order to get even richer.

The political implications are expansive, starting with:

A welfare state justified in virtue of overriding reasons to promote the good of the beneficiaries incurs these residual obligations. Flouting them amounts to unfair burden- shifting. What would it look like actually to satisfy them? For starters, if I were the beneficiary of some emergency medical procedure that a third party compelled others to contribute to— say a state agency— I would be obligated to
repay those charged for my benefit, possibly with some compensatory surcharge. If unable to pay, I would be required to pay in installments, with the agency keeping track of my income and tax records to ensure that my repayment were in line with my means…

Moreover, in repaying, my attitude toward my fellow citizens ought to be one of gratitude for coming to my assistance, as opposed to viewing these services as entitlements due to me as a matter of citizenship. This may seem curious: by hypothesis, the services I received made it past the threshold, meaning that the wealth transfers involved were permissible, and since I am repaying, they won’t
even be net transfers in the long run, barring misfortune. Depending on how badly I needed aid, aiding may even have been obligatory on a third party. Why should I express gratitude for others fulfilling their duties? Consider the Gallic shrug— that supreme expression of indifference at someone else’s misfortunes, while disclaiming all responsibility for rectifying them, frequently encountered
in Parisian cafés. Why shouldn’t I shrug my Gallic shrug at the rich complaining about their tax bill, and point out I merely got what I was entitled to, as would they in a similar situation?

This complaint would be apt if appropriate moral responses were a function solely of whether our acts are required or permissible. But there are all kinds of inappropriate moral responses even when what we have done is permissible or when what the other has done was required. If we are to meet for lunch and an urgent business affair obtrudes itself, I may be permitted to skip our lunch, but
I shouldn’t treat putting you out lightly. What makes a Gallic shrug a vice here is that beneath the outer layer of permissibility there remains an inner structure whereby you have been harmed for my sake, which ought to be a source of concern, leading to some appropriate expression of regret if I am a decent person.  And the same is true in the case of welfare services. This is easy to ignore because
of the opaque veils of state bureaucracy. But behind the faceless agency lie people who are harmed for the sake of benefiting me.

Governing Least manages to be at once readable and dense.  And though you can’t tell from the passages I just quoted, Moller also repeatedly appeals to and grapples with cutting-edge social science.  What, for example, should philosophers think about Greg Clark’s work on the long-run heritability of social status?  Moller’s take will surprise many of you.

Last question: Why do I still prefer Huemer to Moller?  Intellectually, because Huemer’s appeal to individual rights is just more clear-cut than Moller’s objection to “burden-shifting.”  Furthermore, Huemer focuses on the broader case for libertarianism, while Moller self-consciously focuses on opposition to the welfare state.*  And while Moller’s book is beautifully written and well-organized, Huemer’s is stellar on both counts.

Thus, if you’re only going to read one book of libertarian political philosophy, I still say you should read The Problem of Political Authority.  If you’re willing to read two such books, however, read Governing Least.  I loved it.

* Moller: “I also ignore the many noneconomic causes that libertarians have sometimes taken up, like free speech, gay marriage, and drug legalization. This is the fun part of libertarianism and requires little heroism to defend. Many disagree with such policies, but few think their sponsors cruel or ungenerous, while resistance to the welfare state and programs intended to foster economic equality evoke precisely that response.”

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Theft and Coercion Shouldn’t Be Your Default

I have a few things to add related to my recent post about Scott Adams’ mistake about “climate change” not being a “power grab”.

You and I know it is.

Scott would say this just shows you are pretending to read their minds. Plus you would be assuming they don’t actually believe AGCC is the apocalyptic crisis they claim it is.

My counter to that is that since we can’t actually read minds, what we have to do is infer what someone is thinking by their actions. Even if they actually believe AGCC is a life and death crisis, they are choosing the path which gives government more power.

There are paths to solving “climate change”, if it needs to be solved, which don’t give government additional power. Paths using economic means rather than political means. Why are they not promoting those paths?

You could imagine they don’t know those other paths exist. Yet, they do exist and they aren’t hard to find or come up with on your own unless you can’t imagine solutions which don’t involve government. Theft and coercion shouldn’t be your default. If they are, there’s something wrong with you. Probably what’s wrong with you involves at least a bit of power lust, and hoping that the new system will put you a little higher in the power hierarchy.

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Inconsistency is a Hallmark of Statism

Statism is so internally inconsistent that statists hallucinate inconsistency everywhere else, in everyone else. They can’t even imagine anything like consistency.

I’ve seen statists hallucinate that the right of self-defense somehow justifies their support of an armed gang of badged government employees, funded with stolen money, imposing counterfeit rules at gunpoint, with little or no accountability. They imagine that recognizing this gang for what it is is somehow an endorsement of a free-for-all Mad Max world. They come to believe it’s somehow different to shoot a rapist in the act of raping than it is to shoot a law enforcer committing an act of law enforcement.

I’ve seen statists claim that not supporting a government “border wall”, funded with stolen money, built on stolen land, and maintained with stolen money, police state tactics, and coercion, is the same as not respecting private property rights. This is a hallucination caused by statism in the brain.

I could go on, but I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of examples of your own.

The statism requires this internal inconsistency in order to be maintained. They don’t want to admit they have a problem, so they project their traits onto others so they won’t feel bad. Being so inconsistent, they see inconsistency where it doesn’t exist. They have a psychological need to find inconsistency in others to excuse it in themselves.

If people were internally consistent– in reason and principles– they wouldn’t be statists.

Consistency doesn’t guarantee an individual is right (you can be consistently wrong), but inconsistency guarantees an individual is wrong.

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The Philosophy of Poverty?: My Opening Statement

Here’s my opening statement for yesterday’s poverty debate with David Balan.  Enjoy!


The world is rich, but billions of people are still poor.  What’s the morally right response?

The default view is that the government should dramatically expand redistribution programs, forcing the well-endowed – especially business and the rich – to provide a decent standard of living for everyone.  I strongly reject this default view.

Why?  Most glaringly, because the default view overlooks the fact that governments willfully cause an enormous amount of poverty.  The most effective way for human beings to escape extreme poverty is to move from the Third World to the First World and get a job.  Yet the governments of every First World country on Earth make it almost impossible for the global poor to come.  Economically, immigration is a fantastic deal for both sides, because labor – especially low-skilled labor – is many times more productive in rich countries than it is in poor countries.  A standard estimate says that if anyone could legally work anywhere, this would ultimately double the production of the world.

But First World governments don’t merely prevent the global poor from moving to opportunity.  They covertly do the same to the domestic poor by strictly regulating construction in high-wage parts of the country.  Right now, workers in places like New York and the Bay Area earn far more than identical workers in other parts of the U.S.  However, governments in these areas also keep their housing prices astronomically high by blocking construction.  As a result, most workers – especially low-income workers – can’t profitably move to high-paid areas because housing costs eat up all the gains.  Standard estimates, again, say the harm is enormous; one influential paper estimates that housing regulation has cut total U.S. growth by at least half for decades.

Economists often fret about markets’ “equity-efficiency tradeoff,” but what the evidence really shows is that free markets are ready, willing, and able to give us far more equity and far more efficiency.  Unfortunately, it’s against the law.

Given the situation, governments’ primary moral responsibility is to stop impoverishing people.  If a man habitually attacks strangers, is the sensible response, “That guy should give his victims more money”?  No; the sensible response is, “That guy should keep his hands to himself.”  When people look at poverty and call for redistribution, I say they’re making the same mistake.  If, in the absence of government interference, people are able to solve their own poverty problem, the best government policy is no government policy.  Serious thinkers should loudly proclaim this fact before they breathe another word about poverty.

Since my opponent is a serious thinker, I know that he actually agrees with much of what I’ve just told you.  So where does he go wrong?  Emphasis.  Yes, David favors allowing a lot more immigration and a lot more construction.  He grants that these policies will enrich society in general, and the poor in particular.  But none of this excites him.  Why not?  I’m no mind-reader, but my best guess is that David idolizes Big Government, and resents free markets.  So when he thinks about a grave social problem like poverty, he doesn’t want government to get out of the way and let the free market work its magic.  He wants government to heroically solve it with redistribution.  Even when he knows that government viciously victimizes the poor, he wants to hastily concede the point, then talk about redistribution at length.

Aside: I will happily withdraw this criticism if David spends at least half of his allotted time on the evils of government.

Now David could reply: Sure, government does a lot of bad stuff to the poor.  However, government also greatly helps the poor with massive redistribution programs – and these programs could easily be expanded.  He could even flip my psychoanalysis around: “I’m no mind-reader, but my best guess is that Bryan idolizes free markets, and resents Big Government.  So when he thinks about a grave social problem like poverty, he doesn’t want government to step in and ask the free market to pay its fair share.  He wants free markets to heroically solve it with economic opportunity.”

How would I respond to this?  I’d begin by pointing out that most government redistribution doesn’t even go to the poor.  Most obviously, almost all extreme poverty exists outside the First World, but almost all redistribution happens within the First World.  Less obviously, when you examine the budget, the welfare state focuses on helping the old – and most old people are not poor.  The upshot: Governments could do vastly more for the truly poor without raising taxes by a penny.  Just take the money they fritter away on elderly Americans, and give it to desperately poor foreigners.

To my mind, this would be a big improvement, but still a bad idea.  I don’t just oppose the expansion of government poverty programs.  I oppose the programs themselves.

Why?  In my view, there’s a strong moral presumption against taking people’s stuff without their consent.  This doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to steal a penny to save the Earth.  But it does mean that no one should take people’s stuff without their consent unless they have a really good reason.  And taking people’s stuff without their consent is the foundation of all government redistribution.  Wishful thinking notwithstanding, there is no “social contract.”  Real contracts require unanimous consent – and no government has that.  What about “Love it or leave it”?  It’s silly.  Refusing to move to another country does not remotely indicate consent to anything.

So what counts as a “really good reason” to use redistribution to help fight poverty?  Here are the main moral hurdles to clear.

Hurdle #1. Do we have strong evidence that the social benefits of redistribution far exceed the costs?  It’s OK to steal a car to save your life, but not to steal a car because you’d enjoy it more than the current owner.  The same moral principle holds for government – and due to the complex effects of economic policy, it is especially hard for government to comply.  Redistribution plausibly has big effects on incentives and economic growth, so government has no business doing redistribution until it can credibly rule out major negative side effects.

Hurdle #2. Is government trying to solve absolute poverty – hunger, homelessness, and the like?  Or merely relative poverty – lack of a smart phone or cable t.v?  Using coercion to alleviate absolute poverty is morally plausible, but using coercion to alleviate relative poverty is not.  If you’ve seen Les Miserables, you may remember the part where Jean Valjean sings, “He stole some bread to save his sister’s son.”  It would laughable, though, if he sang, “He stole an iPad to play Halo.”  Since there is little absolute poverty in First World countries, there is simply little moral room for domestic redistribution.  International redistribution is another matter, of course.

Hurdle #3. Can voluntary charity take care of the problem?  If you can handle morally objectionable poverty by asking for donations, there is no good reason to force anyone to help.  And to repeat, you shouldn’t take people’s stuff without their consent unless you have a really good reason.

Hurdle #4. The last, and most controversial hurdle: Are the potential recipients of government help poor through no fault of their own?  Or were they negligent?  Yes, I know this is a touchy subject; morally, however, we must address it.  If a friend asks to sleep on your couch for a few weeks, you normally want to know why he needs your helps – and his answer matters.  “I’m fleeing a war zone” is more morally compelling than, “My wife kicked me out because I drink away all our money.”

Why raise this touchy subject?  Because there is an enormous body of evidence showing that a major cause of severe poverty is irresponsible behavior of the poor themselves: unprotected impulsive sex, poor work ethic, substance abuse, violent crime, and much more.  Just ask yourself: If you engaged in such behavior, how long would it take before you, too, lived in poverty?

When I make this point, people have two radically different objections.

The first is to deny the facts.  I can’t do much to answer this objection during a debate; all I can do is give you a reading list later on.

The second objection, though, is to excuse irresponsible behavior – or even morally condemn anyone who calls behavior “irresponsible.”  I say this second objection is absurd.  If you had a spouse who cheated on you, or was drunk half the time, or kept losing jobs, you would run out of patience for his excuses.  Why should you be more forgiving of total strangers?  While irresponsible people often say, “I can’t help it,” this is just a misleading figure of speech.  Think of all the times you said, “I can’t come to your party,” when what you really meant was, “I don’t feel like it.”  That’s the real story of irresponsibility.

I am well-aware that blameless people do occasionally end up poor.  My point is that the advocates of merit-blind redistribution are morally blind to the possibility that they are mistreating people who have compelling reasons not to help others.  Suppose you have an alcoholic brother.  He’s repeatedly made your life miserable for the sake of his favorite beverages.  Your brother has lied to you and stolen from you.  One night he shows up at your house, begging for help.  You turn him away.  Question: What would you think if a neighbor called you up and berated you for your “selfish attitude”?  I say you should hang up on him, because your neighbor is way out of line.

To recap: I’ve offered no absolute objection to redistribution.  Instead, I’ve pointed to four moral hurdles to clear before we even consider it.  If we take these hurdles seriously, maybe you could salvage a tiny welfare state for indigent kids, the severely handicapped, refugees, and so on.  Before you make even this small exception, though, consider this: When someone has made awful decisions in the past, ironclad rules are often best even though a judicious decision-maker would make minor exceptions.  Given how badly all existing welfare states deviate from defensible moral principles, there’s a strong argument for keeping government out of poverty alleviation altogether.

Last point: If you summarize my position as, “We should do nothing about poverty,” you have totally misunderstand me.  I earnestly favor a radical new War on Poverty.  This War on Poverty, however, will target governments’ horrific policies that deprive the poor of vital opportunities.  Instead of scapegoating people who understandably don’t like paying taxes to support strangers, this War on Poverty will deregulate labor and housing markets so the poor can solve their own problems with dignity.  I am sadly aware that my War on Poverty lacks popular support.  Few progressives want to solve poverty with deregulation – and most conservatives want to regulate immigration even more strictly than we already do.  My War on Poverty, however, is the War on Poverty we ought to be fighting.

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Who Owns You?

The issue comes down to whether the individual is viewed as a private person or as public property: the former has no obligation to the community to be or stay healthy; the latter does.

Virtually everything the Founding Fathers sought to achieve by separating church and state has been undone by the apostles of modern medicine, whose zeal for creating a therapeutic state has remained unopposed by politicians, priests, professionals, journalists, civil libertarians, and the public.

–Thomas Szasz

Many people have legitimate complaints against the Food and Drug Administration. For example, during its long history, the FDA has delayed the marketing of badly needed drugs and medical devices, leading to unnecessary pain and death. Excessive bureaucratic requirements for testing have made drugs more expensive than they would have been otherwise. And, as I’ve detailed elsewhere, its regulation of tobacco and nicotine interferes with people’s enjoyment of those products.

I want to suggest, however, such isolated complaints fail to go to the heart of the matter. The problem is not this or that regulation. Nor is the problem even the FDA itself. The root problem is the government’s claim to jurisdiction over so-called “public health.” In the United States, once Congress assumed this power and created myriad regulatory agencies to exercise it, the door was opened to the kinds of mischief that Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) placed under the label “the Therapeutic State.” All manner of interference with individual freedom can be and has been presented in the name of safeguarding public health. It’s a Pandora’s box.

The ultimate question is: who owns you? The answer will determine who is to be in charge of health.

The courts have routinely affirmed that the government has a “substantial interest” in the “health, safety, and welfare of its citizens.” In other words, citizens are public property. It’s time that this currently uncontroversial premise was questioned.

The modern state’s “substantial interest” in the physical and mental welfare of its citizens is an echo of the pre-liberal era, when the sovereign was seen in part as the father and custodian of the physical and spiritual welfare of his subjects. Paternalism served the interests of the sovereign, of course: he needed healthy taxpayers and soldiers. But the relationship was bigger than that.

The liberal revolutions of the 18th century did not fully push aside that model of governance, and many vestiges of the old regime have remained. Whatever the rationalization, whatever the ostensible basis of authority, the state was (and is) about taboos and social control. Of course, the form changed — church and state have been more or less separated — but in many ways the substance has been unchanged. The power of state-related clergymen was succeeded by the power of state-related medical men (including psychiatrists) and putative scientists. As the theological state receded, the therapeutic state advanced. Illness (including so-called mental illness) came to play the role in public policy that sin once played. Health stands in public life where salvation once stood. Treatment is the modern way of redemption. The burning of witches was succeeded by, for example, the confinement in madhouses of people who had committed no crimes. Electroshock and lobotomy replaced the rack and thumbscrew. The pattern repeated itself in the United States; state governments involved themselves in public health from an early date, followed by the federal government. Drug dealers and users became the modern scapegoats who had to be cast out (imprisoned) to protect the public’s health, although drugs entered people’s bodies by volitional acts. (On the resemblance between the theological and therapeutic states, see the works of Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist who made a career demonstrating the unappreciated parallels. Links to many articles are here.)

In the modern age, Szasz wrote, “To resolve human problems [e.g., “bad habits”], all we need to do is define them as the symptoms of diseases and, presto, they become maladies remediable by medical measures” — more precisely, political-medical measures. Doctors, having been deputized by the state, wield power they could have not obtained otherwise. (The head of the FDA, Scott Gottlieb, is a physician.) Thus we have (to use another phrase from Szasz, “the medicalization of everyday life.” For example, any disapproved behavior that anyone engages in repeatedly is branded an “addiction,” which is in turn defined as a disease, as though calling behavior, which has reasons not causes, a disease were not a category mistake. Never mind that metaphorical, or mythical, diseases are not real diseases. (Are substances or people habit-forming?) To say that an ascribed disease is a myth is not to deny the behavior or even to deny that the behavior may a problem for either the actor or the people around him. As the philosopher Gilbert Ryle wrote, “A myth is, of course, not a fairy story. It is the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms belonging to another. To explode a myth is accordingly not to deny the facts but to re-allocate them.”)

It is in this light that we should view the FDA and other government medical and scientific entities. They are part of a massive apparatus of social control, making their personnel agents of social control, not truth-seeking. Whether the FDA, for example, is a friend of industry or an adversary (at different times it’s been both), the public is ill-served precisely because the right of individual self-determination in a free market, including tort- and fraud-redress procedures, is undermined by prohibitions and restrictions. It is also ill-served by the monopolistic effects of centralized political authority over science and medicine. (On the FDA’s growth, see this.) Free competition is the universal solvent because facts emerge through rivalrous activity, both economic and intellectual.

Many people don’t see things that way, of course, and so government has increasingly controlled people’s choices with respect to health and science. On the basis of the fiction that the free market has failed in these realms — when has it actually been tried? — politicians, bureaucrats, and deputized practitioners have gained power. A gain in political power, Albert Jay Nock taught us, necessarily means a loss in “social power,” that is, self-control by individuals and their voluntary associations (including families). If self-control is denied in one area of life, we should not be surprised to see it fade from other areas of life. Today, the battle cry is “Medicare for all!” But if “the public” (the state) is to pay for everyone’s medical care collectively, won’t the public’s putative representatives want to impose restrictions on individuals’ risky behavior if for no other reason than to minimize the hit to the government’s budget? What then becomes of what’s left of individual freedom?

The coercion exercised by the government-medical complex is routinely defended as being for people’s own good: in this view, they are compelled to do only what they really wish to do but cannot because of addiction, mental illness, etc. To Szasz, this is “the authoritarian, religious-paternalistic outlook on life,” to which he responded: “I maintain that the only means we possess for ascertaining that a man wants to [for example] stop smoking more than he wants to enjoy smoking is by observing whether he stops or continues to smoke. Moreover, it is irresponsible for moral theorists to ignore that coercive sanctions aimed at protecting people from themselves are not only unenforceable but create black markets and horrifying legal abuse.”

Szasz added: “The issue comes down to whether the individual is viewed as a private person or as public property: the former has no obligation to the community to be or stay healthy; the latter does.”

We know how the “public health” lobby views the matter. When it panics over how much smokers “cost the economy” in lost productivity (through sick days and shorter lives), the lobby is proclaiming that Americans are indeed public property. How dare they enjoy themselves and risk their health at the expense of the economy, the people, the nation? (The Nazis and Bolsheviks followed this idea all the way.) In contrast, quaint classical liberals believe “the economy” — that is, the institutional framework for free exchange — exists to serve people. When the “public health” lobby advocates coercion for a person’s own good, in reality it does not speak of treatment and cure but of assault and battery — and perhaps torture. A medical relationship without consent is like a sexual relationship without consent. But few people understand that.

Perhaps sensing the flaw in the case for coercion based on preventing harm to self, much medical coercion is offered in the name of protecting others. There is a grain of truth here, of course. People can carry deadly communicable diseases. (Whether the state’s centralized bureaucracy is needed or competent to deal with this is another question.) But as the public-choice thinkers point out, state officials won’t be satisfied with such a narrow mission as protecting people from such diseases. Public-health jobs will tend to attract people dedicated to reforming other people’s “vices.” Inevitably, they will push the boundaries to acquire more power, money, staff, and prestige — all dedicated to breaking our “bad habits.” The alleged threat from second-hand smoke is in no way analogous to the immediate threat from a communicable disease. The former can easily be dealt with through contract and other voluntary arrangements but that doesn’t stop the public-health zealots from working to outlaw smoking in bars, restaurants, and even tobacco shops.

But what about the children? In a free society, families are responsible for raising children to be autonomous adults. Of course, this does not always happen, part of the reason being the government’s own obstacles, such as rotten schools for low-income kids. At any rate, history makes clear that government crusades, say to keep adolescents from doing “adult” things — such as drinking, smoking, and now vaping — only adds to their allure and has horrendous unintended consequences. Fruit is harder to resist when it is forbidden. Meanwhile, adults find themselves harassed — in the name of protecting the children — as they go about enjoying themselves.

Would life be perfect if “public health” were left to free and consenting adults in the free market? No, of course not. But a real-world free society should not be compared to an unreal and unrealizable utopia of all-wise, all-knowing, and all-good “public servants” who have only your health and welfare in mind. Rather, it should be compared to the real world of fallible, morally flawed, egotistical, self-serving, and centralized politicians and bureaucrats whose worldview is one where they give orders and you obey. Markets — which is to say, people in both profit-seeking and non-profit capacities — are capable of producing reliable consumer information and guidance, not to mention certifying the quality of products. They do it every day. Governments, after all, are comprised of nothing but human beings.

“Those who would give up essential liberty,” Benjamin Franklin might have said, “to purchase a little temporary health, deserve neither liberty nor health.”

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