"Public Health" Plagues Body Politic

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Reader Snedcat points me to an interesting, but somewhat rambling article about the "Disease of 'Public Health'" over at Spiked. Perhaps the most interesting is the first paragraph, which provides a laundry list of recent proposals that have been made in Britain the name of public health:

... minimum pricing for alcohol, plain packaging for tobacco, a 20 per cent tax on fizzy drinks, a fat tax, a sugar tax, a fine for not being a member of a gym, graphic warnings on bottles of alcohol, a tax on some foods, subsidies on other foods, a ban on the sale of hot food to children before 5pm, a ban on anyone born after the year 2000 ever buying tobacco, a ban on multi-bag packs of crisps, a ban on packed lunches, a complete ban on alcohol advertising, a ban on electronic cigarettes, a ban on menthol cigarettes, a ban on large servings of fizzy drinks, a ban on parents taking their kids to school by car, and a ban on advertising any product whatsoever to children.
The article goes on to raise some interesting methodological and motivational questions about the new breed of scolds behind such proposals. It also draws some historical parallels with religiously-motivated health and behavioral crusades from the past.

These are all worthwhile and interesting, and the author even touches on a crucial question usually missing from modern discussions about health policy (i.e., whatever role the government is assumed to have regarding our health): "[I]n an enlightened society the judgement [about whether a given health risk is acceptable] can only be made by the one person who bears all the risk and enjoys all the benefits: the individual." That said, the article wanders, as if in need of a moral and political compass. Morally, it could have stood to take a more fixed gaze at the whole idea of third parties making cost-benefit analyses. (That said, it does challenge the idea by examining how an individual could have different criteria for making a choice than some government official.) Politically, it would have done well to ask of all such measures, the question Ayn Rand asked when governments took money and freedom from individuals: "By what right?"

Modern puritans have the power they do because too many people tolerate them making such calls. This tolerance unfortunately extends to the political realm, where government coercion of private individuals is increasingly accepted, rather than regarded with the high degree of suspicion that it deserves. It is this coercion that empowers "the assortment of neurotics and authoritarians that make up the modern ‘public health’ movement" to dictate even to those of us who see them for what they are.


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