Friday 16 October 2009

How One-Sided Healthist Arguments Work

You'd have to go a long way to beat an article such as this. In fact, you have to go a bloody long way just to find it!

Good to know that scepticism of healthist lies methods is a worldwide phenomenon, though. It's a viewpoint which seems to be especially thriving in New Zealand for some reason.

Sometime soon, we'll see a report showing that the social costs of skiing are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It wouldn't be hard to produce a number that large. First, show frequent skiers are more likely to have accidents than recreational skiers.

Then, make the critical assumption that nobody could ever rationally decide to take risks - health is all that matters. Frequent skiers then are by definition irrational, and irrational people enjoy no benefits from their ski outings, no matter how happy they appear.

This is an argument proffered by libertarians that is generally dismissed out of hand by our holier-than-thou masters. Of course they aren't going to go after skiers ... or rugby players, or cyclists, or anyone else enjoying a pastime which is deemed 'correct' - when was the last time you read about the huge weekly cost of park footballers clogging up A&E departments with recreational injuries? Such hobbies have benefits - healthy ones - plus, the fake report authors are quite keen on doing such things themselves, so they'd never produce the kind of lunatic 'science' and innumerate manipulation of financial outcomes as they do in other fields.

And there isn't a fake charity, paid by government, to tackle problematic skiers, egg chasers, or the Haringey Cloggers Sunday footie team ... yet.

We've seen a lot of cost measures of this sort. Tobacco, fatty foods, gambling - just about anything fun seems to cost "society" more than a billion dollars.

But, like my hypothetical report on the costs of skiing, these reports rely heavily on what I'll call a "healthist" assumption about how we should live our lives.

Any time we make a decision that lets us enjoy a bit of fun but with some risk to our health, that decision is considered irrational and cannot generate any real enjoyment.

Consequently, benefits are either assumed equal to zero or set to an arbitrarily low level.

And there it is in a nutshell. Your enjoyment isn't worth quantifying to the righteous, it has a benefit of £nil. You may derive enjoyment from it, you may find that your meagre lot is more happy and tolerable, and that you are a more useful member of society as a result, but the righteous dismiss that as worthless.

Downtime on the piste will bring equal relaxation and enjoyment (both of which, last time I looked, were considered as an incontestable good), but such enjoyment is allowed. It is decent and admired. If your personal choice of unwinding is deemed unworthy, the rules change.

Driving a car is also an evil which is worth quantifying as being beneficial. It may kill and choke thousands, probably millions or even billions, but healthists also drive, and they also manage to quantify the financial benefits and accept the inherent risks.

If health and safety were our only goal, the world would look very different. We would all buy cars made of padded foam rubber and drive very slowly. That we don't is strong evidence that we have pluralistic sets of values - we are not monomaniacal healthists in our daily lives.

For every skier who dies in an avalanche, tens of thousands of others took no fewer risks but enjoyed a great time out on the slopes. Their enjoyment ought to count for something.

And, for every drinker who dies in an accident that could have been avoided were he sober, there are countless others who simply enjoyed a good night out.

Where a healthist report tallies the social costs for the unlucky few, rational policy requires putting weight on the benefits as well.

But they don't. Because they don't want to, as it doesn't fit with their rent-seeking, single-minded agenda.

There are risks all around us, in every single activity that humans indulge in. Either vital to the country, or merely recreational.

However, there are also costs and benefits in all of them too. To ignore advantageous economics in some areas whilst accepting it in others is quite simply wrong.

Some may even term it more sinister than that. I would be amongst that 'some', and fortunately, as it would appear from this excellent article, there are a whole load of us around the world who feel the same.

The heart still clings to the hope that one day we might see the 646 in parliament populated by a few more who would even begin to understand the incontrovertible logic carried in this article.

The head, however, comes to the conclusion that they will forever wander around Westminster like nodding dogs the moment a dodgy stat is placed in front of their dim, unquestioning, myopic, self-promoting intellect.

And, in doing so, they cost us, collectively, a hell of a lot more than any healthist scaremongery boasts about, on a daily basis.


Anonymous said...

Ever noticed that "research" is only ever conducted into things that many people enjoy? How much work has been done on the possible ill effects of steamed carrots or boiled cabbage? What about the long-term health of those who drink only water, or never touch fats and sugars? What about those who eat the "five a day", and have no room left for other foods? The silence is deafening.

Who are the resarchers? Who pays them? Who funds the research? Why? When they give me this information, and I have read the original papers, I will listen.

bayard said...

Another point is that the healthists' targets are always the pleasures of the poor, never those of the ruling classes. Alcohol is an exception, but even then, the main thrust is towards pubgoers. Banning driving is always the best example to trot out against the "if it saves a single life, then it's worth it" brigade.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Dick, I'm sure that they'll go after the ski-ers sooner rather than later - think of all those non-essential flights!! Unless of course they have a Global Cooling Summit in Davos and just happen to do a bit of ski-ing afterwards.

And there's plenty of elfin safety crap going on at football matches, swimming baths etc (or the latter may be restrictions on photography, whatever).

@ Bayard, what about fox-hunting? That's seen as upper class (despite it isn't).

Eric Crampton said...

Glad you enjoyed! Paternalism under the prior Labour government here in NZ really started getting up folks' noses; John Key campaigned on not doing that sort of thing anymore (without specifically promising to do away with any of the prior impositions, mind you).

The Labour government had initiated a review of our alcohol legislation by the Law Commission, who started relying heavily on a really shonky cost report commissioned by the Ministry of Health and our Accident Compensation Commission showing the costs of alcohol use to be about $5 billion dollars. I then had a bit of fun dismantling the report; it got a fair bit of press and the consultancy firm that put it out was made a laughing stock at the NZ Economics Association Meetings where they presented their cost report (with me coming in as discussant).

Unfortunately, the Law Commission still seems to be looking at some heavy handed measures, egged on by a well funded public health sector whose main job seems to be hectoring folks and producing agitprop. We'll see what comes of it.