Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Oh, freedom

A couple of days back I noted in passing that there is a "libertarian" backlash to BHO's plans to encourage health eating and physical fitness. To save y'all a click, Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown reports that:

The whole situation has libertarians craving a basket of onion rings and a beer. "If you care about the sorts of things I do, then you are going to be losing big-time for the next four to eight years," said David Harsanyi, a Denver Post columnist and author of the book "Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America Into a Nation of Children."


"[CDC nominee]Frieden's stick-over-carrot, for-your-own-good approach to public health is no longer confined to the Big Apple," the industry-backed Center for Consumer Freedom wrote on its blog. "Get ready, because the 'nanny state on steroids' is going national."

Budoff Brown errs rather severely later in the story when she writes:

But other skeptics have critiqued the healthier-is-happier approach with the numbers. An article this year in the journal Health Affairs concluded that prevention measures usually add more to medical costs than they save.

That isn't talking about getting people to eat a balanced diet and maintain a proper body weight: it's talking about medical interventions such as screening tests and prophylatic drug regimens. That is an entirely separate, essentially unrelated subject (which I have addressed previously, if you're interested.) So consider that one deconstructed at the preceding link, and let us turn to this question of freedom.

In the U.S., "freedom" and "liberty" have enormous resonance. Everybody wants to fly the banner of liberty, no matter what their cause: we have to torture people to preserve our liberty, we have to abolish taxes, we have to stop telling people it's bad for their health to eat a lot of animal fat. Sadly, I have concluded that the conservative definition of "liberty" is "I get to do whatever I feel like and to hell with you." That may be good for your liberty, but it obviously isn't good for mine. And it leads on a very straight path to an obvious paradox. If every one is granted this unrestrained liberty, then the most ruthless sociopath in the group will seize absolute power by means of terror and violence. If you believe that some magic dust will prevent that from happening, and that we can instead have an anarchists' paradise, then we won't have roads, bridges, airports, educated children, enforcement of contracts, money, fire protection. We won't know what's in the food that's offered for sale and we won't know whether our employer will ultimately bother to pay us for our work. Addicts will be sitting on our front porches with the crack pipe, and a drum circle will be playing outside your window at 2:00 am. I mean, duhh.

Many Americans don't seem to understand that Homo sapiens is a social animal. We survive by cooperation, division of labor, and mutual regard. Ron Paul fans who exercise their liberty by driving their Hummer at 90 miles an hour to the Ayn Rand festival would not have the "liberty" to do so if not for the elaborate system of economic regulation which makes the automobile industry possible in the first place, and the public works apparatus which gives them a road to drive on. And if everybody made their choice to drive too fast, they would probably be dead by now.

"No man is an island," sayeth the preacher (John Donne, specifically). Mr. Harsanyi, if you pig out on deep fried lard dumplings for 15 years and end up with heart disease and diabetes, the following will occur: you won't be able to work, and you will become a public charge; you will not be able to provide support to your dependents, who will likely have their education aborted; the value of your personal productivity (such as it is) will be lost to society; and you will stop being a libertarian and start complaining that your disability check is too small and your co-pay for the 12 prescriptions is too high. That will be bad for your liberty and mine as well.

The government has a legitimate interest in discouraging you from doing that, most strongly in assuring us that we won't have to listen to you kvetching about how it's everybody else's fault when you get sick. Now, exactly how government ought to go about promoting public health, and where to strike the balance between achieving a healthier population and annoying David Harsanyi, is a question worthy of debate. But let us recognize that libertarianism is nonsense. It's just a conspiracy by the powerful, wealthy and rapacious to throw sand in people's eyes and fool them into voting against their own interests.


Bix said...

Enjoyed this post.

I heard a song the other day, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" by the Hollies. It's from the 70s.

The lyrics struck me:
"I'm strong enough to carry him...
His welfare is my concern, no burden is he to bear...
If I'm laden at all, I'm laden with sadness that everyone's heart isn't filled with the gladness of love for one another..."

I'm sorry to sap up your blog. But this sentiment, I thought at the time, seems to stand in contrast to the sentiment of those who prefer to, not sure how to say it ... hoard resources? or be concerned with mostly their own welfare?

I don't know if it was meant to be a religious song, but I would understand if it was, since the concepts of sharing and loving one's fellow man resonate with many religions.

There's a irony here (you pointed out ironies as well). Once someone achieves absolute liberty they are free to exercise their choice, religious of not, to care for their brother, which in effect defines a state, which is what libertarianism seeks to abolish.

Cervantes said...

I don't mind a little sentiment. I do think there is an amoral quality to libertarianism. I remember talking with a bunch of computer geeks -- a class with which this philosophy is highly popular -- who claimed that they had no moral obligation to rescue a drowning child. It was purely a personal choice whether or not to do so. That sort of attitude really is at the core of it, after all.