Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bad for Us, Bad for You, Bad: Different Justifications for Restricting People

For no good reason, I was thinking recently about the problem of defining paternalism, of when a policy should or should not be considered paternalist. It occurred to me that 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 obvious example would be rules making vaccination compulsory.

2. Bad for you. What you do imposes costs on you; regulations will stop you from doing it, making you better off. That is paternalism. A recent example is the attempt by the mayor of New York to limit the size in which soft drinks can 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 they know what is good for some other people better than they do—those people who are doing things they are confident are bad for them.

3. Bad. From the standpoint of an economist, this is the most puzzling. A good 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 in one way or another. Laws against homosexuality can be defended on the grounds that God doesn't approve of it and 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, you would think people would be interested in a realistic calculation of what those costs are. While doing things that reduces your life expectancy may impose costs on other people, it also reduces the amount of social security you collect, which is a benefit to other people. And it is not even clear that doing things that reduce your health increases total health costs—it might mean you die faster, with less expensive end of life treatment. 

All of these would be relevant issues if the motivation were 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. I recently came across an analysis that concluded that obesity probably did not impose net external costs, but I do not expect it to persuade Mayor Bloomberg to change his policy. So far as the external costs of second hand smoke, a recent post here described how careless supporters of a smoking ban on my campus were about the evidence to support their estimate of the size of the effect, which suggests that their real motive was paternalism.

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 pretty 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, incidentally, 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, of keeping me from producing CO2 that will result in your house being flooded. But my conclusion from watching the arguments is that for many, perhaps most, supporters of such regulation that is not the central motivation.

Consider as  evidence 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 much 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 other species should be preserved because there may be information in their DNA that will at some future time prove informative 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 appropriate. Large parts of the motivation, as best I can tell, are essentially religious, based on the feeling that natural is good. My category 3.


At 6:41 PM, April 23, 2013, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

So far as risk of extinction is concerned, I note that there are some 5000 languges on Earth, or on the rough order of 0.1% as many as there are biological species. Of those, 80% are anticipated to become extinct (no living speakers) within this century. That's a really catastrophic loss (imagine if several million biological species faced extinction!) from a narrower base population. Yet there hardly seems to be any movement to take measures to preserve the cultures that speak those languages, or even to see that they are carefully recorded by trained linguists.

At 7:08 PM, April 23, 2013, Anonymous Don't call me Janet said...

In the case of obesity it has always seemed to me as if there were two major reasons people were in favour of regulation that fit neatly with your model.

The first reason is what you call the paternalistic. My family members in the medical profession are all well aware of the fact that obesity may well not impose net costs and indeed they often joke that smokers and alcoholics are very altruistic people because they pay much more tax through duties and tend to die quite young. Despite this all of them are strongly in favour of banning cigarettes, raising the price of alcohol and raising food standards to reduce obesity simply because they are genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of others (who wish they would just sod off).

The second reason is what you called just “bad” but in the case of obesity and homosexuality is probably better described as disgust - if you haven’t already I would recommend reading or listening to some of Jonathan Haidt’s work on morality in groups. Both obesity and male homosexual activity have obvious characteristics that provoke amongst many and strong feeling of disgust: obesity is associated with poor hygiene and physical weakness while male homosexuality is strongly associated with sodomy. If I’m not very much mistaken even those civilisations which tolerated homosexuality and even approved of certain kinds of male homosexual practices still frowned upon anal penetration – hardly surprising in a world without condoms, water based lubricants or regular hot showers.

Disgust is feeling which for most of the history of our species served as an important survival instinct and thus it is an immensely powerful emotion that can override other modes of thinking. I’ve observed that amongst the people I talk to about such things the other than doctors people who will defend measures to reduce obesity in spite of the evidence that it may cost them nothing tend to make some reference to how disgusting extreme cases of obesity can be.

At 7:58 PM, April 23, 2013, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

Don't call me Janet: It was actually rather different in many ancient Greek cities. A common pattern there was that anal penetration was quite acceptable . . . so long as the one being penetrated was not an adult man; that was regarded as unfitting subordination. A man could desire a woman, a boy, or a slave, but sex between equals was something between a perversion and a delusion in Greek eyes. Some of the ruder epithets in Greek, such as eurypygos and katapygos, refer specifically to an adult man who catches rather than pitching. I had worked out much of this from reading historical and linguistic material, but it was confirmed by a friend who teaches classical languages and history of philosophy at a university.

I have the impression that attitudes toward obesity have changed over the past two centuries. As Elton John's song "The Bitch Is Back" puts it, "Times have changed and now the poor get fat." Before 1800, the poor could be identified by being short and gaunt, as a result of recurrent food shortages and chronic poor nutrition; now there's so much food that the poor are likely to be fat, for reasons that Orwell discussed back in the 1930s. I think being fat was less intensely denigrated when it was not a marker of low wealth and status.

At 3:59 AM, April 24, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

Well, perhaps people also want to preserve all those different species of animals so that they can see them sometimes in a zoo or in a park. Then, when they are extinct it creates a cost for anyone who wants to see those animals. Depending on how strong you believe the extinction effect can be, it could suggests quite high cost on your side. If I take it ad absurdum - extinction of cats would be a significant loss, simply because a lot of people like to have them as pets and look at them (as evidenced by youtube :) ). If you believe in catastrophic scenarios where basically only farm animals and pets survive the global warming, it can also be a significant cost. People like watching national geographic and similar TV, because they like watching wild animals. Some of them go various places to see them live. If they're gone, that is a significant cost imposed upon them.

At 4:42 AM, April 24, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suggest that people concerned with species extinction may be considered to be in category 1 if we allow the "us" to be understood in a non-anthropocentric way.

At 6:20 AM, April 24, 2013, Blogger August said...

Yeah, you might want to change example three to something that isn't actually bad for the person engaging in it. Like growing marijuana and then eating it, rather than taking the more carcinogenic route.
There's the hygiene issues folks have already brought up, and then there are lifestyle issues. Sure, I know folks want to blame the higher suicide and substance abuse rates on everybody else, but there is very little reason to.
Then there is Duesberg: http://www.duesberg.com/
What the man says is extremely plausible.

At 7:37 AM, April 24, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...


The problem with your suggestion is that it explains why one would be opposed to killing animals or hurting them, not why one would be opposed to letting a species go extinct. As best I can tell, people with those views see a large difference between a policy that results in a million individuals of one species and none of another and a policy that results in half a million of each.

At 7:40 AM, April 24, 2013, Blogger dWj said...

August: If you're implying that homosexuality is bad for people, I'm somewhat skeptical. If you're implying that its being bad for people is the primary reason that most of the people who oppose it oppose it, I don't believe you at all.

My understanding is that the Greeks in fact regarded homosexual desires (in a man) as superior to heterosexual impulses, on the grounds that women are inferior to men and are not a fit object of appreciation. I would allow that I'm in no way an expert on the Greeks, but this is the internet, so that doesn't stop me from writing.

In similar ignorance, I understand that some of the biblical injunction against homosexuality was in a context in which neighboring nations made homosexuality something of a part of their ritual and custom, and that it was part of the general injunction that the Jewish people were to keep themselves distinct from other people.

At 8:09 AM, April 24, 2013, Anonymous suckmydictum said...

I would only add that divine punishment for homosexual toleration has certainly been suggested by religious authorities (flooding in Yorkshire was blamed for homosexual behavior by the bishop of Carlisle, for example). The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, if they existed, would probably be more definitive than flooding in the UK, but people have certainly argued along those lines with regards to current catastrophes.

At 8:13 AM, April 24, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there is a typo in the title "Bad [f]or Us..."

At 9:12 AM, April 24, 2013, Blogger August said...


That is what I stated, not what I implied. Implications tend to not be directly stated, but the illnesses and injury incurred by people practicing the homosexual lifestyle render it not useful as an example of something that isn't injurious to its own practitioners.
I actually suspect most people don't know this regardless of their views on liberty. It is one of those realities deliberately obfuscated. Even those with knowledge relevant from other fields, like sanitation for instance, seem to fail to bring said knowledge to bear on the subject.

At 9:13 AM, April 24, 2013, Blogger jimbino said...

I have a big problem with the "bad for us" rationale for proscribing certain behaviors.

Why is it bad that we use up all the fossil fuel lying around? Why is it bad that the sea-level rises because of global warming? Why is it bad that the growth of landfills threatens to take over vast areas?

Only a small part of the potential harm can be attributed to harm to others; almost nobody alive would suffer if all of West Texas were taken over by landfills (it might even be an improvement!). The lion's share of the harm, if any, would be suffered by future generations.

That harm doesn't count. I have a right not to have my life and happiness hobbled by concerns attributable to the rampant breeding of others. If we have to take into account harm done to future beings, where does it stop? Should we also consider the harm done to the domestic animals of the breeders too, as well as to their progeny?

Indeed, the argument runs the other way: breeders should be fined or stopped altogether, since their breeding harms all the others who are wasting countless hours recycling and now even forgoing plastic bags entirely.

The best you can say about liberty in our paternalistic world is that our world has been made safe for children: we pay through the nose for their public miseducation, we are denied adult fare on TV and internet in order to protect them, and, hell, every time we try to open an aspirin bottle, we are paying for the harm visited upon us by the breeders.

In my ideal Coasean world, an equilibrium would be reached by requiring breeders to pay for the disruption they cause in the landscape of liberty.

At 10:11 AM, April 24, 2013, Anonymous RKN said...

In my ideal Coasean world, an equilibrium would be reached by requiring breeders to pay for the disruption they cause in the landscape of liberty.

A curious view, and not one entirely without merit if you ask me. However, I wonder, to the extent your disdain for breeders isn't merely hyperbole:

Would you agree that the present day descendants of those whose liberty was so disrupted by your birth, could rightly seek reparations from you? And how far back do we go -- where would it end!

At 11:23 AM, April 24, 2013, Blogger jimbino said...


Your view is curious. Under what theory would you hold that the children of breeders should have any obligation to anyone by virtue of just having been illicitly born?

It's true that we could claim rights over their ill-gottn inheritance, I suppose.

At 11:29 AM, April 24, 2013, Blogger August said...

To be clear, I don't hold the idea that, because something is bad for you, I should then ban it. I am just pointing out homosexuality is a bad example of something that isn't bad for you.
I think private property and freedom of association takes care of this sort of thing. Eventually it becomes clear where and how you want to live if you want a decent and healthy life.

At 11:30 AM, April 24, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll take your word that there are people who think that killing individuals is not so bad as long as it does not extinguish the species and at the same time don't approve too much of preserving samples for future use. I don't know what to make of this combination of views, and I don't find your characterisation of them as "natural-is-good-religious" very convincing either. Maybe "confused" is a better one.

My best guess, however, is that people who appear to hold these views are really just plain advocates of the rights of other life forms who are making up arguments with the intent of being taken seriously by anthropocentrics.

At 12:21 PM, April 24, 2013, Blogger chriscal12 said...

Why are some environmentalists more concerned with species extinction than with harm to individual animals?

One answer has already been suggested: They are concerned that species extinction has far reaching and negative ramifications that individual deaths do not.

Another answer is a kind of animal rights collectivism. Just as many people focus their moral concern on human groups as opposed to individual humans, so many people focus their moral concern on animal groups as opposed to individual animals.

At 12:59 PM, April 24, 2013, Blogger EH said...

Indeed 3 is the most puzzleling of all. I would say the payoff is in protecting the value of conformity. We would do well to recognize that this is a fairly tangible good. When you walk through a crowded street, you generally do not expect other people to think about wanting to eat your brains. That relies on a certain set of well-balanced assumptions as to how people are similar to you, and an understanding of the range of variations of human psychology. Again, this is a real good. Society couldn't function without it.

The reason I think many people balk at things like homosexuality, is because it strains these valued assumptions. Given that our attractions are largely an instinct rather than the result of deliberation, the fact that someone might not share them is upsetting; what is next, do they also want to eat my brains? A certain protectiveness as to what we regard as 'natural' is therefore the be expected.

However, what we do regard as natural is of course quite malleable. I think the crowd that accuses pro-gay advocates of spreading propaganda is correct on at least one front; exposing people to homosexuality may not lead them to become homosexuals, but it certainly weakens their support base. People growing up around positive homosexual role models will rarely become averse to homosexuals.

Similarly, what kind of response people have to the extinction of species is also highly malleable, I imagine. Homo sapiens is a drop in the pond relative to the change brought about by the rise of the cyanobacteria, or termites for that matter. Evidently, this is not how the issue is framed in our public schools though.

But generally speaking, I think it is good for the cause of liberty to be aware of this dynamic. We have substantial power to shape what people regard as 'natural', and this is likely to be the most effective way of shaping downstream policy implications, when it comes to these 'type 3' issues.

At 3:22 PM, April 24, 2013, Anonymous RKN said...


I suppose a child may have no direct obligation, but perhaps indirectly through a claim made on her breeders' estate, for what would be, under your view, "unpaid debts."

It's true that we could claim rights over their ill-gottn inheritance, I suppose.

And that would apply to any inheritance you may have received from your breeders, correct? ;-)

At 3:25 PM, April 30, 2013, Blogger Eric Rasmusen said...

Good discussion.

As to homosexuality: it is worth noting that Prof. Boswell would be alive today if sodomy laws had continued in full force. He did not expect to die from homosexuality, of course, but AIDS is an illustration of Unintended Consequences. There may be more to come.
It would actually be a good project for someone to compare the health costs of lung cancer from smoking to AIDS, noting, in particular, that AIDS costs start far earlier in life, so there is much less discounting.
Homosexuality also can fall into the Paternalism category of helping others. For Christians that is easy: other people will suffer less punishment from God if they sin less. That is a real concern--- particularly when the homosexual is a friend or relative.
The main reason for opposition to sodomy though is, I agree, visceral dislike of the practice. Why do people dislike it? That is hard to answer, though we should note it is equally hard to answer why people think child molesting is bad, or why rape is worse than assault that has the same medical consequences. I find introspection doesn't help me answer the question; it just verifies the phenomenon. Any insights, anyone? Till we know *why* these things are so bothersome, we should be reluctant to dismiss the feelings.

At 11:30 PM, April 30, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

" it is worth noting that Prof. Boswell would be alive today if sodomy laws had continued in full force."

Not clear. I don't think sodomy laws prevented sodomy, although they may have made it less common.

"why people think child molesting is bad"

Or why modern societies define it so broadly. As best I can tell, "children" were considered adults for sexual purposes, ready to be married, pretty much at puberty in most previous societies.


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