Monday 13 July 2009

Utility is more than health

The excellent Glen Whitman points us to an LA Times article showing that, while mice on a calorie restricted diet live longer, they also are less happy than the control group of mice kept on a full diet.

This points to a generalized problem in the public health literature. Far too many public health folks are willing to assume that health is the maximand and not utility. Consequently, they want to tax or regulate anything that's both fun and potentially damaging to health.
Still, this is the important issue, is it not? If eating less increases your lifespan but decreases your happiness, then there’s a very real trade-off between quantity and quality of life. Which means the author’s conclusion that even people with a healthy weight “should probably be eating less” is simply unjustified -- unless we make some fairly heroic assumptions about what’s loaded into that key word “should.”
Indeed. I've argued the point at length in the New Zealand Medical Journal, but especially here.
Too often, researchers couch paternalistic arguments in allegations of market failure to give the cloak of scientific efficiency to their prescriptions. Doing so is just bad economics. A more honest approach would first specify that the authors want to tell everyone how to live their lives, then present the set of Pigovean instruments as an efficient way of inducing the consumption choices they view as better than that which people would otherwise choose for themselves.

Be not ashamed of your paternalism: embrace it! But, if others disagree, don’t blame shadowy special interests for the failure of your policy prescriptions; rather, concede that most people really don’t like it when others try to tell them how to live, even if following the advice would lead to slightly longer (but less interesting) lives.

Update: Brad Taylor weighs in nicely.

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