A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Against Libertarian Libertinism

In the wake of the recent World Health Organisation (WHO)'s announcement that eating bacon raised your risk of cancer, there has been a rash(er?) of libertarians denouncing this and defending eating bacon. From a certain standpoint, this is rather strange.

An example, taken from the European Students For Liberty Facebook page.
The fact that a food raises your risk of cancer is, unless you are fine with getting cancer, a reason against eating that food. Not at all a decisive reason - you might well think that the enjoyment you get from the bacon is well worth the minute or two by which you shorten your life. Indeed, this is precisely the kind of choice that, as libertarians, we are committed to thinking people ought to be able to make for themselves. But if we recognise people's right to make that choice, we ought to recognise their right to choose either way. We ought not to be pressuring people to choose a particular way.

("But pressuring someone to make a particular choice is hardly the same as forcing them to make it!" It's imposing negative consequences upon their making a particular choice, and is from that perspective no different to taxing them for making a particular choice. Haven't you read Mill?)

Now perhaps this is a natural reaction to being "told what not to do." I'm not sure how plausible this interpretation is. The WHO has insisted that it is not telling people not to eat bacon, but (a) this is coming after the fact, potentially as a PR move, and (b) just because the WHO doesn't intend it that way doesn't mean that national governments won't take it that way.

Out of these, (b) seems most important. Western governments do an awful lot of moralising about tobacco, sugar, and such things, and this moralising is typically accompanied by taxation, censorship of advertising, and other deeply illiberal measures.

But it's far from obvious that the best way to respond to this is with anger. What I fear here is that something will happen similar to what has happened in the global warming debate. Global warming has been used by various left-wing people as a justification for policies that we all know they would be pushing for anyway - more taxes, monetary transfers from the first world to the third world, and (most damaging of all) a deliberate end to the search for economic growth. There are two ways that those of us opposed to such policies can respond. One is to point out that tackling CO2 emissions is perfectly compatible with a free market: just impose a Pigou Tax (which I view as just a particular way of enforcing rights) and you're done. The second is to dispute that global warming is actually happening. Unfortunately, most people seemed to take this second route, despite it relying upon demonstrably false premises. (One wonders whether many deniers on some level know that climate change is indeed happening, and continue to deny it as a form of ingroup signalling).

This allowed people opposed to massive government intervention against global warming to be painted as anti-science. My worry is that the same could happen with diet: the debate could become a purely scientific debate over which foods are bad for you, rather than a debate over values: do we want to live in a society which doesn't trust its members to take care of themselves?

The biggest problem with a scientific debate from the libertarian perspective is not that we might turn out to be wrong - governments' dietary suggestions have, as with most dietary suggestions, a long history of being terrible - but that even if we're right, we still can't win. Suppose it turns out that, contrary to official claims, food X is in fact good for you. Then the ground changes. Statists will stop advocating a ban on X and will start advocating subsidies, in a way that is just as harmful to liberty.

Ultimately, the debate has to be over values. They're the important thing, and they're the battle which we can - ultimately - win.

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