In NYC, the Bloomberg administration banned the selling of sodas over 16 ounces. There has been much ado about this. It brings up questions about what role government has to play in addressing obesity as a public health problem and the relation between government action and individual liberty. It also reminds us of the problem of unintended consequences. Optimizing food production via maximization used to be an imperative for survival. Presently, the cost per calorie is falling, even in developing countries. However, while we may be winning the battle against hunger development may also lead to other problems, namely obesity as a public health crisis (this may be becoming a salient problem in part of Latin America).
Well, from what I have heard Mexico has followed and surpassed us in terms of obesity. Perhaps it serves as a cautionary tale. But looking strictly at the price of calories is a limited analysis. One must also look at the sedentary lifestyles of the citizens who are purchasing these calories in greater numbers, because calories tend to make you fat only if you do not burn them off in some time after consuming them. As the price of calories goes down, the calorie cost of leisure time spent engaged in activities other than eating goes up. Being from the American Midwest, I’ve seen many a hearty soul live a life with eating calorie-dense food as the central leisure activity. They may have increased their lifetime capacity for consumption of delicious calorie-rich foods if they had devoted some salient amount of their leisure time to calorie-burning activities. But they behaved like addicts. Since calories, or at least the foods that contain them, can become addictive, we also need to assess the time preferences (discount rate for the future and rate of depreciation of current consumption capital) of the individuals to see if food addiction is the ‘rational’ behavior that leads them to an undesirable future state of utility.
So, what can be done about this? Changing the choice architecture of calorie consumption through public policy is one means. This does represent a net increase in the intrusion in the lives of individual citizen. But in a sense, it is really the government using intrusion to countervail against the irresponsible intrusion of food and beverage advertisers who are motivated by quarterly profits and not by epidemiological concerns. We could assign the responsibility for changing this choice architecture to the World Health Organization, but they would need the tools to accomplish the mission and this would require broad cooperation from a number of nation-states.
But this will inevitably lead to an outcry from our libertarian interlocutors that big government (even worse ‘global government’) is infringing on our individual liberties. I think the libertarian argument against government action (at least what I could make of it) is the argument that:
1. Government can do things that will improve societal outcomes, at least in the short run.
2. If government attempts to improve societal outcomes, then government will have to take official action.
3. If government takes any action, then that action will lead to further government action which is undesirable.
4. If government attempts to improve societal outcomes, then that action will lead to further government action which is undesirable. (2,3 by Hypothetical Syllogism)
5. It is not the case that government should act in ways that will lead to further government action which is undesirable.
6. Therefore, it is not the case that government should attempt to improve societal outcomes. (4,5 by Modus Tollens)
This sympathetic rendition is a valid argument. But it is unsound. The problem is that premise 3 is false. This is a logical fallacy known as a slippery slope argument. The slippery slope argument is essentially the argument that doing some of P will lead to either more of P (which is bad) or some of Q (which is also bad). There is no reason, prima facie, to believe this is true. You have to provide evidence to support that claim that doing some of government action will lead to more of government action or an undesirable type of government action in order to either universally generalize the claims that if government takes any action then that will lead to further undesirable government action or that in the present case it will specifically lead to particular undesirable action/outcomes. The former claim involves a universal generalization move, and the burden of proving it is heavy. The latter involves a sort of existential instantiation, and the burden of proof is far from overwhelming. However, I have not seen sufficient evidence to support either claim.
Notice they have conceded that government can improve the lives of people, but are opposing it on the basis of a logical fallacy. Is it ethical to oppose improving the lives of people based on an assessment of risk predicated on fallacious reasoning, even though the risk may be great in magnitude? You can supply your own ethical analysis of this situation. I’m not sure it’s a particularly difficult question.
Getting beyond the objections of anarcho-capitalist, there are bigger questions about freedom that just the roles of government in determining the amount of freedom.
Should people really have the freedom to live and eat any which way they can choose? I think we really need to explore the dialectical tensions between individual liberty and rationality. Maybe our notions of both come from the same intellectual movement, so it’s hard to see them dialectically related, but I still think a case could be made that they are indeed so related.
Individual liberty has a correlative concept—autonomy—that can be used in defining it. Being autonomous means having the locus of power to choose your path through the game of life (or whatever game you prefer to play) be centrally-situated on your own shoulders. Individual liberty is some measure of the extent to which you can exercise that autonomy given your subjection to externally-articulated constraints (e.g. rules, conventions, &c.) that must be observed as a condition for participation in whatever civilization one finds herself in.
Rationality has different meanings in different senses. But I think in some essential way, rationality is a conceptual architecture for making decisions. Like the natural scientific search for better quality explanations, rationality is the cognitive scientific search for better quality decisions. A central concern is defining what counts as quality in the domain of explanations. Utility theorists assert that it is about maximizing a funny little thing called ‘utility’. But I find it hard to seriously doubt that what counts as quality in decisions is the extent to which those decisions tend to make me better off.
So let’s say the calorie consumption game is a kind of game of perfect information. Let’s say I’ve read the current state of the art in nutritional literature and I know how many calories I need to consume for at each meal for the rest of my life in order to maximize my own health and welfare given whatever type of food I may be served by food preparers (and let’s assume I have some real number value I can assign to that state of maximization of my own health and welfare, which will not be changed because all appropriate considerations are already built into it). This means I have a strategy which tells me how I should behave with respect to nutrition at every meal. Let’s further say that I have a personal computational assistant meal planner that I carry around which consists of a device with a program that will remind me how of my strategy implies I should behave at my present meal. Now, at each meal I can either follow the dictates of my personal computational assistant—and note these are well-justified dictates—or I can exercise my own autonomous decision-making based on preference which may deviate from the plan from time to time and retain a fuller character of individual liberty. Following those dictates would be the most rational thing I could do under the circumstances. But following those dictates with fealty limits the exercise of my individual liberty, though since I am the one who programmed the strategy I am not, overall, deprived of the autonomy which is underlies my individual liberty. I have, in a sense, in the present become master and made my future self my own servant.
But what if I had someone else program that little nutritional pocket calculator for me? This would be someone who had the resources to consult with all the major nutritional experts and develop a strategy that would make me at least as healthy and with at least as much welfare as if I had programmed the strategy into the calorie calculator myself. The major difference being that it costs me whatever utility I would’ve gained from my autonomous conscious decisions about how to develop my own strategy for navigating the paths through my nutritional life and pre-prandial choices. Whether or not I consent to have the rational planners program the computational assistant for me is really rather idiosyncratic, it depends on my own personal discount rate for the value of purely autonomous choice about the path through the game that is this part of life and not any sort of high-minded philosophical position.
That is very tightly analogous to the position we are in vis-à-vis the government regulating our consumption choices. The opposition to government regulation in this and other domains appears to be rather idiosyncratic and personal instead of principled.
Now, as the state of nutritional knowledge evolves, who is in a better position to adjust the choices sub-games that are a part of the larger game of perfect information that is played when the meal planner is first programmed: me or the planners with resources to build relationships with nutritional experts and institutional rules upon which to base decisions about how to re-program the meal strategy? That’s an important consideration to make in determining whether or not I should go it alone or allow myself to be regulated.
There is also the matter of total societal cost, which I may not concern myself with in individual decision-making but the government may in deciding on public policy. So, should the government create policies that promotes the general welfare? Or as the question was posed by one of my teachers, “Should people be required to engage in activities that reduce total societal cost?” I support such obligations. There are a number of different ways to think about this problem. You might set up a meta-rule that says, if societal cost exceeds personal benefit and personal cost of compliance is less than societal cost, then make a rule requiring compliance (where compliance may be the prohibition against an action or a requirement to take an action). That would not run counter to the logic of cost-benefit analsys (CBA).
But the question asks, “Should people be required to engage in activities that reduce total societal cost?” This implicitly draws a distinction between cases where compliance involves abstention from a forbidden action and cases where the rule-governed citizen is obligated to take an action—which is the case with being required to wear seat-belts in order to be in compliance with the prevailing rules.
Prohibitions and obligations put limits on the autonomy of an individual, but they impose different kinds of limits. Prohibitions set limits on the extent of an individual’s freedom. They remove negative liberties. Obligations limit a person’s positive liberties, which is to say they limit a person’s ability to act in a goal-directed fashion by goals motivated from within—the seat of a person’s individual autonomy. Thus, limiting positive liberty through obligations can be viewed as a more intrusive act. It represents being externally-driven to act rather than simply restricting the free exercise of internally-driven action.
The problem is, environmental constraints already restrict positive liberties. So, the locus of control of the agency of an individual is not strictly localized, and in all cases is not necessarily firmly centered on the individual. Conventions are an example of such externally-dictated drives to exercise individual agency in a particular way. Thus, imposing obligations on one group of people, say risk-lovers, that restrict their positive liberty, but that prevent them from restricting the positive liberties of liberties of another group, say risk-averse people, and may have no net effect on the exercise of positive liberties in society. This is, of course, ignoring the claims to a set of individual rights implied by self-ownership on the part of the risk-averse people; rights that exist precisely because of a relationship with the government and not those that would occur in a vacuum (a set that would be null, I think).
But what is the relationship of this analysis to total societal cost? First of all, this is an ontological commitment to the existence of such a thing as societal costs, which is not as unreasonable as The Iron Lady may have suggested. Total societal cost incurred over a period of time represents a sort of steady state in the allocation of scarce societal resources. Some amount of those resources—for reasons biological and psychological &c.—are required for each individual to engage in goal-directed activity as they complete their internally-articulated/ discovered purpose in life. Such pursuits of purpose are limited arbitrarily by the factor of inefficient allocations of scarce societal resources if there exists a feasible allocation which is at least as efficient, a fortiori if there is a strictly more efficient allocation. Without enjoining people to undertake certain activities to reduce total societal costs, in at least some circumstances, through public rules one could argue that these arbitrary limiting factors are brought into play where they otherwise would not be. The corollary is that we can push for strictly dominant allocative efficiency or at least more allocative efficiency through such obligations.
Becker, G., & Murphy, K. (1998). A theory of rational addiction. Journal of Political Economy, 96(4), pp. 675-700.
McKay, B. (2012, September 18). What role should government play in combating obesity? Wall Street Journal.