Wednesday 7 October 2009

Public Health and the New Paternalism

My latest piece is out in the Centre for Independent Studies' Policy Journal. Direct link to the article here, but of course, the whole issue worth reading. Teaser below.
Public health and the new paternalism

Arguments for taxing alcohol overestimate social costs and ignore personal benefits, argues Eric Crampton

Does anybody else miss honest old-time paternalism? When the revivalist preachers of the 1920s and ’30s condemned the demon drink, their assumptions were clear: without careful shepherding by the church and enforcement by the state, sinful drinkers would condemn themselves to perdition. Preachers claimed superior moral authority derived from divine revelation. Those claims are ineffective now: public policy is largely secular and religion is largely left for individuals to decide on their own.

The new paternalism is more insidious. Today’s anti-alcohol proselytisers garb themselves in the mantle of science rather than religion for authority. Unfortunately, it’s just the garb of science with none of its rigour: it’s sciency rather than science. A century ago, we were ill-equipped to argue that a preacher might not have superior knowledge of the mind of the Divine; we’re now just as badly prepared to examine the new paternalists’ sciency method.

Today’s sciency paternalists reside mostly in academic public health departments and frame their recommendations as being based on economic cost-benefit or, worse, cost-only analysis. Economics and epidemiology provide the pretence of authority.

These new paternalists advance what I’ll call healthism: the notion that there should be no public policy objective beyond improving health and increasing lifespan. Is this really a sensible objective for public policy? And if health is only one of many competing social goals, then the method underlying their prescriptions is seriously flawed.

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