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.”

Continue Reading

In the Grain

Nobody asked but …

As has been made clear by countless libertarian sages, there are only two classes — the first seeks freedom and the second wants to intervene in that search for freedom.  I have been listening to an old set of podcasts from the Mises Institute’s The Libertarian Tradition, presented by Jeff Riggenbach. In one episode, Jeff points out that European civilization in the North American new world was founded by two distinct types of adventurer, the first sought freedom from the old order, while the second sought to impose a new order.  We Americans, as a people have been in fundamental conflict ever since.  Riggenbach says it is the instance of individualists versus the zealots.  Individualists make their own goals, take their own actions, and accept all responsibility for the consequences of those actions.  Zealots want to dictate your goals, command your actions, blame you for consequences, and blur the lines of responsibility.

Throughout the history of society, there have been struggles for the collectivization of individualists.  But in the new land that would become the USA, the battle lines were far more clearly drawn among those who would colonize America, those who would seek freedom according to individual codes against those who would create new empires modeled upon the old empires.

A libertarian/voluntaryist/individualist/anarchist always looks for the simplest rule of thumb by which to gauge the self’s deeds with regard to consistency of principle.  Let me suggest the question, am I doing a thing that is my business, or am I doing a thing that will shape somebody else’s business?

— Kilgore Forelle

Continue Reading

There’s No Way to Know Everything

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and one many people can’t accept, but you and I can never know everything.

This means if you want to act politically, you’ll come from a place of ignorance whether you mean to or not.

I can’t know the ultimate reality about Anthropogenic Global Climate Change — commonly called “global warming.”

I can’t know all the possible consequences of building a new “Berlin Wall” between America and Mexico.

I can’t know how a total gun ban would affect actual aggression statistics.

I can’t know all the consequences of adopting fully socialized medicine in America.

I can’t know exactly what my life would be like without police, government schools, taxation, laws, and all the rest of the socialistic things I would like to see go away.

And it doesn’t really matter.

It’s enough to know when something violates other people’s rights and liberty; to understand I have no right to violate others even if I can’t know with certainty how things would go if no one violates them.

This knowledge — that I have no right to violate others — is sufficient and essential.

There are people who are arrogant enough to believe they can know it all. They may claim the reason you don’t know it all is because you won’t research it for yourself, or you’re just not smart enough. They are dishonest.

They don’t know it all. They only know enough to be satisfied with the position they’ve taken; a position that justifies their favorite violations of life, liberty, and property. If your research leads you to a different opinion, they’ll claim you don’t know enough until you agree with them.

They expect to use government against those who don’t agree with them on whatever issue they care most about. They’d like to have you on their side; superior numbers, expressed through a vote, to gang up and force others to go along with what they believe.

Yet, even if they are right in their beliefs, they aren’t right about how to carry them out. No one has the right to use government violence to force you to go along with them.

Such a right has never existed and can’t be invented.

Accept that no one can know everything and that no matter what you know it can’t give you the right to govern others, nor to select people to govern them on your behalf.

This knowledge will liberate you.

That’s one thing I can know for certain.

Continue Reading

The FDA’s Assault on Tobacco Consumers, Part 2

A bill introduced in the U.S. House last month would ban the flavoring of any “tobacco product” except, strangely, cigarettes.” The targets are vaping devices (vapes, e-cigarettes), but also cigars and pipe tobacco. The Food and Drug Administration deems vaping devices “tobacco products” even though they contain no tobacco. Introduced without sponsors by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the bill would allow an exception for some vaping products, but it is one that would be all but impossible to qualify for.

The rationalization for the prohibition is that flavoring attracts underage consumers to the products. Yet this seems implausible because it suggests that without flavoring teenagers would be uninterested in e-cigarettes (not to mention conventional cigarettes). Yet kids have long been attracted to conventional unflavored cigarettes. (And unflavored marijuana has no troubling winning favor among the young.) After all, fruit, mint, and other flavors are readily available in unrestricted products like hard candy, chewing gum, and soft drinks. So if underage consumers want those flavors, why don’t they stick with products they can legally buy? Clearly, the attraction to e-cigarettes (and conventional cigarettes) is something other than flavors — the “coolness,” or maturity, factor perhaps.

DeLauro’s bill betrays a fundamental puritanism, which underlies all prohibitionism: since nicotine is a substance that provides pleasure and some people therefore use it habitually, it must be stamped out and its consumers, producers, and merchants demonized. (Human beings have long affirmed themselves by demonizing others and their preferences.) As H. L. Mencken told us: puritanism is the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

At any rate, DeLauro’s bill is redundant because the FDA under Trump appointee and putative deregulator Scott Gottlieb is already moving in that direction. (Her bill likely excludes conventional cigarettes because the FDA is already stepping up the restrictions on them.) Indeed, Gottlieb now threatens to yank vapes from the market and subject them to a lengthy and expensive regulatory review if “the youth use continues to rise.” (The anti-vaping hysteria is just getting started.) According to NBC News, Gottlieb told a meeting: “If … we see significant increases in [youth] use in 2019, on top of the dramatic rise in 2018, the entire category will face an existential threat. It will be game over for these products until they can successfully traverse the regulatory process.” (Emphasis added.) He reportedly accused the e-cigarette makers of marketing to young people. Yet when those makers label their products as for adults only, they are accused of enticing children. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

Welcome to America, the land (as Mencken put it) of the “theoretically free.”

In 2009 Congress and Barack Obama gave a virtual blank check to the secretary of health and human services to regulate “tobacco products” through the FDA and a soon-to-be-created Center for Tobacco Products. The result over the last few years has been a dizzying cascade of oppressive rules governing manufacturing, retailing, labeling, and other aspects of the business of producing and selling combustible and smokeless tobacco and nicotine-delivery products that don’t contain or are not made out of tobacco, such as e-cigarettes and pipes.

Among other things, the FDA has begun to move toward mandating that the nicotine in cigarettes be reduced to so-called “non-addictive” levels, the consequences of which would surely spill onto pipe and cigar smokers. (Nicotine users have always found ways to get the amount they want regardless of government restrictions.) The FDA’s most recent decree bans most flavored vape “e-juices” from general retail stores (as opposed to age-restricted vape shops), and prohibition of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars are also in the works. Meanwhile, other tobacco products, such as pipe tobacco, that entered the market on or after an arbitrary date in the past (in 2016 or 2018, depending on the product) are being deemed “new” and made subject to costly and time-consuming FDA testing. Even a retailer’s blending of two long-available pipe tobaccos is deemed to be “new” and subject to testing. (Deadlines for submission for testing are in 2021 and 2022, depending on the product. The FDA’s procedures have yet to be worked out.)

The upshot is that adults are being harassed as they go about their peaceful consumption of combustible and smokeless tobacco and nontobacco nicotine products, which human beings have done in one way or another from time immemorial. (While some people find it easy to habituate themselves to nicotine, unlike inhaled tobacco smoke, it is not hazardous to health.) As noted, many of these bureaucratic violations of liberty are defended in the name of protecting children; however, we can address that issue without the blunt instrument of the state, and as mentioned, many intrusions have nothing to do with children. How many kids are shelling out for premium cigars, pipe tobacco, and briar pipes?

Moreover, regulations that appear aimed at children, especially those regarding vaping, may discourage cigarette smokers from switching to that safer form of nicotine consumption. The warning that vaping is “not a safe alternative to cigarettes” almost sounds like an argument for sticking with cigarettes, although vaping is safer than inhaling cigarette smoke. (The reported rise in teen vaping has coincided with a drop in teen cigarette smoking.)

The intrusions simply hassle adults and make what they want to consume less abundant and more expensive. And they do something else: they entice teens, who will always be drawn to forbidden fruit. (What would Huck Finn be saying?)

Congress should repeal the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA) of 2009, which empowers the FDA to regulate “tobacco products” and to define what a tobacco product is. How can anyone continue to believe that the U.S. government is constitutionally limited when Congress and the president can authorize an executive department and a regulatory agency to define their own powers over peaceful, consensual conduct?

Make no mistake about it: the assault on manufacturers and retailers is ultimately an attack on consumers who indulge in what other people believe are vices. (See Lysander Spooner’s Vices Are Not Crimes: A Vindication of Moral Liberty.) This is shameful in a society that fancies itself free.

To be continued…

Continue Reading

Addicts Can’t Think Outside Their Box

A heroin addict might not like the side effects and other consequences of being addicted to heroin, but giving up the drug is unthinkable, so they try to find ways around the consequences which don’t involve giving up heroin.

Statists don’t like some of the side effects and consequences of statism, but giving up the State is unthinkable so they try to find ways around the consequences which don’t involve giving up their drug.

Thus you have borderists screaming that you can’t get rid of government borders or you’ll have people flocking to America to get free stuff from “welfare” or committing crime. They can’t even see that they’re in a box, much less think outside it.

This utter lack of awareness illustrates my point about statism being an addiction.

No part of statism is a given. Any of it can be eliminated; all of it can be eliminated. That one part of it excuses another part doesn’t mean you have to keep either part. Ditch them both. It’s the sensible thing to do.

Continue Reading

Many Different “Problems,” Identical “Solution” in Every Case

Terrible working conditions
Lots of poor people
Industrial and financial instability
Economic depressions that won’t self-correct
Inadequate supplies of “affordable” housing
Widening economic inequality
Racial and ethnic discrimination
“Market failures” of many kinds
Environmental degradation
Threatened or disappearing species of animals and plants
Global cooling
Global warming
Climate change

These are among the many problems that people have perceived as plaguing economically advanced societies during the past century or so. They differ greatly and involve different causes, mechanisms, and consequences.

Yet in every case the solution has been widely seen as the same: vastly enlarging the power of government. It’s almost enough to make a skeptic wonder whether each perceived or proclaimed problem has been intended from the start to serve as a pretext for a government power grab—especially when one appreciates that somehow the problems that enhanced government power is supposed to solve never get solved to the satisfaction of those who sought the power, but only cry out in their view for even greater augmentation of government power.

Continue Reading