Government Health Regulation is Unhealthy
Imagine that, in the late 18th century, the Congress of the United States decided to pass a law ensuring that every person afflicted with the common cold get proper medical treatment so as to ensure a speedy recovery. This law would mandate that all cold victims have their veins opened and bled by a qualified medical professional – so as to remove all of the “bad blood” that the leading experts of the day considered to be the cause of the ailment. If you had been alive then, would you support such a law if it were proposed? Would such a law actually end up making people healthier than they would have been otherwise?
forward about 220 years to our time and consider the myriad proposals offered
by politicians with the sometimes honest intention of making people healthier.
Everything from a ban on smoking in restaurants to a citywide ban on trans fats
to limitations placed on fast food restaurants has been offered as a way for
government to force people to make healthier choices than they allegedly would
“But wait!” some might object. “Our scientific understanding of the causes of health problems and of healthy living in general has vastly improved over the course of the past 200 years! Surely, we cannot compare the contemporary understanding of health to that of our ancestors!” Fair enough; today’s scientific experts do understand what does or does not make people healthy better than experts in the past. However, this does not mean that they can justifiably impose this understanding on others. No matter how greatly knowledge of health has improved, we cannot assert that it has reached anywhere near perfection or certainty; furthermore, we cannot claim that any current scientific understanding of health will never be repudiated. After all, there does not even exist a definite understanding of what kind of foods are healthy or unhealthy. Should one follow the Food Pyramid – which emphasizes carbohydrates – or the Atkins Diet – which rejects carbohydrates – or something in between? Is chocolate good or bad for one’s health? A new study comes out nearly every week to overturn the conclusions of the previous study. These are useful discussions and disputes to have – but the very existence of such informed disagreements among people immersed in nutritional health questions implies that imposing any one way on the entire population is entirely unjustified.
Now we come to the core of the problem. Let us assume that the government legislates a prohibition – say, of trans fats – based on the best current scientific understanding. Then, perhaps in a decade or two, a breakthrough study comes out on the hidden and overlooked benefits of trans fats – leading virtually everybody to recognize the mistake of avoiding these substances. Certainly, there will be tremendous public pressure to repeal the prohibition, but the American government was specifically designed to be slow to respond to changes in public opinion. Thus, it might take years to actually overturn a scientifically discredited ban; in the meantime, government would continue to enforce a law known to be deleterious to people’s health.
Had a government ban never been in place, people would be able to switch to consuming trans fats as soon as they became aware of any compelling benefits to doing so. Furthermore, without a ban in place, those who disagreed with the scientific consensus against trans fats would be able to continue consuming them and test out their theories as to the health benefits of these substances. It is sometimes possible for individuals of particularly acute perception and judgment to recognize a scientific fact before it is officially released to the public in formal studies – many of which may require years of testing and peer review to be formally completed, even though the basic conclusion might seem obvious in the meantime. A blanket ban on any substance would be, in effect, a legal prohibition on disagreeing with the scientific consensus of the times. This is neither a properly scientific attitude nor one conducive to any future progress.
Add to the problem of scientific ignorance the famous Hayekian knowledge problem. The Austrian economist and political theorist Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) recognized that no central planner can possibly have awareness of all the “circumstances of time and place” surrounding the actions of a particular individual. This highly localized, particular, dispersed knowledge is not reflected in any official statistics or abstract scientific theories, yet it is often indispensable in determining which decisions will make an individual better off. When it comes to a particular individual’s health, the circumstances of time and place are paramount.
For instance, it is virtually universally acknowledged that smoking is harmful to one’s health and increases one’s risk of suffering from emphysema and lung cancer. But, nonetheless, there exist individuals who live into their late nineties and early hundreds despite being smokers. Perhaps these individuals saw the risk involved in smoking but rationally decided to compensate for this risk by taking better care of their health in other areas. Can we truly say that someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day but also drinks no alcohol is any less healthy than someone who drinks several bottles of beer a day but does not smoke or somebody who neither smokes nor drinks but eats plenty of high-calorie desserts with every meal? Clearly, the best indicator of an individual’s health is how long that individual actually lives, but we cannot determine that with certainty until we are no longer able to prohibit that individual from doing anything.
In fact, virtually everybody knowingly engages in some kind of more or less unhealthy practice – not out of self-destructive desires but because he believes that on balance he makes sufficient healthy choices to compensate for any unhealthy ones. For instance, an individual might eat 600 calories’ worth of extremely rich cake every day – and then run intensely for an hour and burn 800 calories. Perhaps he only runs so as to permit himself the pleasure of eating the cake, and he would have done neither if the government decided to prohibit highly calorific cakes. Let us assume that without the ban on cake, the individual has a balanced diet and takes in as many calories as he expends. But with the prohibition in place, he ceases to eat cake and to run, making him run a surplus of 200 calories per day. Assuming that a surplus intake of 3500 calories is required to gain one pound of weight, within a year, because of the government ban on cake, this person will gain almost 21 pounds! Talk about unintended consequences!
Government regulation of individuals’ lifestyles can indeed often achieve the exact opposite of its intended effect. Politicians need to abandon the hubristic notion that they can centrally plan the lives and health of individuals better than those individual themselves. They are not omniscient about either the present or the future.
Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical
essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, weekly columnist for GrasstopsUSA.com, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov also publishes his articles on Helium.com and Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. His most recent play is Implied Consent. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at email@example.com.
This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.
Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.