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Bad for Us, Bad for You, Bad
Different Justifications for Restricting People
There are at least three different arguments for regulations limiting what someone can do.
1. Bad for us. If what I do imposes costs on you that's a reason why you might want to prevent me from doing it. An example would be compulsory vaccination to prevent the spread of disease.
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2. Bad for you. What you do imposes costs on you; regulations will stop you from doing it, making you better off. An example is the law put in by Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, limiting the size in which soft drinks could be sold on the theory that doing so will make people less likely to be obese. Cigarette taxes and restrictions on smoking fit the same pattern. The argument depends on assuming that the people making the regulations know what is good for other people better than they do, but most people do believe that about at least some other people.
3. Bad. From the standpoint of an economist, this is the most puzzling. An example would be restrictions on male homosexuality. Such restrictions are common to many different societies. As best I can tell, the basic motivation is a gut level feeling that the activity is wrong — not bad for the person doing it, just wrong.
Practically any restriction can be, and is, defended on more than one of these grounds. The restriction on soda can be defended on the grounds that obese people impose costs on the rest of us. Laws against homosexuality can be defended on the grounds that God will punish the nation that permits it. Compulsory vaccination can be defended on paternalist grounds.
In most cases, one can get a pretty good idea of the real grounds of support for a policy by looking at what questions the supporters choose to look at. If the reason for trying to reduce obesity or smoking was to reduce external costs, people would be interested in a realistic calculation of what those costs are. While doing things that reduce your life expectancy may impose costs on other people it also reduces the amount of social security you will collect. Doing things that reduce your health might mean you die faster, with less expensive end of life treatment, reducing total health care costs.
These would be relevant issues if the motive for reducing smoking or obesity was protecting us from you rather than you from you but if you try introducing them into the argument you are unlikely to get a friendly reception. An analysis that concluded that obesity probably did not impose net external costs, however carefully done, would not have persuaded Mayor Bloomberg to change his policy. When there was a proposal to ban even outdoor smoking on my campus, supporters were not concerned with the low quality of the evidence for their claimed size of the effect of second-hand smoke. Pretty clearly their real motive was paternalism, making smoking more inconvenient in the hope that some people would stop doing it.
Similarly for the case of homosexuality. People who want to ban it as a protection against divine wrath do not seem very interested in looking at the evidence for either God's opinion on the subject or the risk of divine punishment. For the latter they generally cite a single case from considerably more than two thousand years ago, ignoring both the ambiguity of the motive for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah — arguably the real offense was violation of the obligations of hospitality — and all of the societies since that have tolerated homosexuality and not been subject to a rain of fire and brimstone.
As to God's opinion, the evidence, at least in the case of Christianity, is not all that clear. The late John Boswell, a gay historian at Yale, argued convincingly that both the scriptures and early Christianity for the most part treated homosexual sex as no worse than other forms of non-marital intercourse. Opponents of homosexuality may oppose heterosexual fornication as well, but rarely with the same passion. What convinced me that Boswell had a reasonable case was reading an attack on him by a prominent opponent which badly misrepresented the contents of the book I had just read. People who have good arguments do not need bad ones.
For a final and more ambiguous example, consider environmentalist regulation. It is frequently defended as a way of protecting us from each other. But my conclusion from watching the arguments is that for many, perhaps most, supporters of such regulation that is not the central motivation.
Consider the issue of species extinction. People who argue that the extinction of a species will upset the ecology in ways that will impost drastic costs on us rarely offer evidence for the claim, at least that I have seen, let alone enough evidence to justify the costs of protecting endangered species. People who argue that species should be preserved because there may be information in their DNA that will at some future time prove useful to us do not, as a rule, react positively to the suggestion that the problem can be solved by preserving a few samples in liquid nitrogen for future genetic analysis, when and if doing so becomes worth doing. Large parts of the motivation, as best I can tell, are essentially religious, based on the feeling that natural is good, fitting my third category.
And on the subject of paternalism …
"The Sorcerer" Considered as a Political Statement
After viewing for the first time, a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s "The Sorcerer" I concluded that it was, among other things, an attack on paternalism, on doing thing to other people without their permission for their own good. The central figure is an irresponsible young idiot named Alexis with an ideological commitment to the principle that love solves all problems and is its own justification — it does not matter who loves whom or why. Acting on that principle he spikes the party teapot with a love potion1 provided by a professional sorcerer ("My name is John Wellington Wells/A Dealer in magic and spells/..."). Everyone in the village falls asleep. When they wake up each falls in love with the first person of suitable gender he or she sees, not counting married people or those not available because they have already seen and fallen in love with someone else.
Almost everyone ends up paired off, most of them unsuitably, although the plot does manage to free them at the end. It is clear from Alexis' conversation with the young woman he is in love with that he has devoted no serious thought either to the truth of the belief whose implications he is imposing on a large number of other people without their consent or to the likely consequences; indeed, it is not entirely clear that he is capable of thought at all. When a minor miscarriage of the plan on which he insisted results in his chosen maiden falling in love with someone else, he blames her.
My only complaint about the play is that Gilbert got the ending wrong. Having Alexis carried off to Hell might have been a mildly excessive punishment, but he shouldn't have gotten the girl.
When I discussed the play on my blog one reader, perhaps more familiar with the context than I was, wrote:
I think having the young nobleman offload the consequences of his screw-up onto a working man and still go off to a happy ending was part of the political point G&S were making.
For Your Own Good
An Australian navy ship has intercepted a boat carrying nearly 60 suspected asylum seekers - the fourth such incident in less than two weeks. "Situations around the world mean that large numbers of displaced persons are looking for settlement in wealthy, developed nations like Australia and can be targeted by, and fall prey to, people-smugglers," Australian Home Minister Brendan O'Connor said. (old news story)
From the standpoint of the asylum seekers, O'Connor and the Australian navy are the enemy. The "people smugglers" are the ones on their side, the people who, for a price, are trying to get them into Australia. O'Connor is trying to keep them out. In an attempt to obscure that fact, he describes the situation as the immigrants "falling prey to" the people smugglers.
I am reminded of President Clinton's explanation that the reason he was having the U.S. coastguard turn back people trying to escape from Haiti to the U.S. was for their own good, the crossing being a dangerous one. That was the point at which I decided that, whatever his qualifications as a President — we have had considerably worse ones — Clinton was a pretty poor excuse for a human being. Stopping desperate people from escaping from their particular hell may, under some circumstances, be excusable. Pretending that you are doing it for their good is not.
If only there had been enough more of those wicked people smugglers in the late thirties for desperate emigrants to fall prey too, it might have been only five million.
When I made that point on my blog it set off a long and angry controversy over immigration. For my views …
Immigrants and Welfare
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest- tossed to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door. (Verse engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty)
The U.S. had effectively open immigration for most of its history and it turned out pretty well, but the U.S. was not then a welfare state. As long as immigrants come to work and produce they are a net benefit but poor immigrants today could come in order to live off our welfare system — at a level considerably better than they could manage, even with hard work, in the countries they came from. That is an old argument, one I discussed in my first book some fifty years ago. There are a number of possible responses.
The first is the empirical question—is there evidence that immigrants in fact impose net costs on the U.S. tax and spending system? I think the answer is no, although it is not a question I have looked into in any detail. Immigrants tend to be young and healthy, hence impose lower costs than the average of those already here. Welfare may be better than what they left but it is a great deal worse than what they can get here by working. And some of our governmental costs, most notably national defense and interest on the national debt, are independent of population, so easier to pay the more people are helping to pay them.
Another argument I have sometimes seen is that immigrants from less free countries will corrupt our political culture, make America more like the countries they left, the same reservation some Texans have about immigration from California. It seems unlikely for immigrants fleeing what socialism has made of Venezuela, once one of the more prosperous countries of South America. It does not fit the current voting pattern of Cuban immigrants in Florida.
Having let myself slide back into a very old argument, I will show my true colors by quoting the end of the chapter on immigration from my first book:
It is a shame that the argument must be put in terms of the economic or psychological 'interest' of the present generation of Americans. It is simpler than that. There are people, probably many millions, who would like to come here, live here, work here, raise their children here, die here. There are people who would like to become Americans, as our parents and grandparents did.
If we want to be honest, we can ship the Statue of Liberty back to France or replace the outdated verse with new lines, 'America the closed preserve/That dirty foreigners don't deserve.' Or we can open the gates again.Welcome, Welcome, Emigrante To my country welcome home. (The Machinery of Freedom, Chapter 14)
Obviously obtained from one of the springs described in the Orlando Furioso.