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Beware of Any Government-Engineered “Easy Choice”

In my latest column for AIER, I warn against heeding the authoritarian advice of the innumerate Washington Post columnist Leana Wen. A slice:

The most iconic line from The Godfather is, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Don Corleone wasn’t horsing around. The Hollywood producer to whom this ‘offer’ was made was threatened with terrible consequences if he refused to accept it. The Don’s ‘offer’ was not refused.

This famous line came to mind as I heard Washington Post columnist – and CNN regular – Dr. Leana Wen (she boasts an M.D.) insist that the government needs “to make vaccination the easy choice.” Such innocent words! Indeed, they sound downright sweet. Who doesn’t like ‘easy?’ But there’s nothing sweet or even innocent in Dr. Wen’s words. They signal authoritarianism.

By “make vaccination the easy choice” Wen means – as she admits – that “it needs to be hard for people to remain unvaccinated.” She wants government to subject unvaccinated individuals to invasions of their private affairs so restrictive and obstructive that these persons will soon conclude that the “easy choice” is to get vaccinated.

This logic, of course, is the same as that which motivates armed robbers. When told, as you stare down the barrel of a thief’s gun, “Your money or your life,” your choice at that moment is indeed easy. Yet for obvious reasons no one applauds armed robbers for making it easy for their victims to ‘choose’ to relinquish control over their property. No one reckons that, because these victims ‘choose’ to turn over their money under threats of coercion, that these victims are not wronged by the robbers. And no one concludes that, because armed robbers formally give their victims a ‘choice,’ these robbers thereby act reasonably and in good faith.

In a free society, if Ms. Jones wishes to persuade Mr. Smith to take some particular action, Ms. Jones must offer to improve Mr. Smith’s well-being without being able to reduce his well-being.

“If you give me $5.00, Mr. Smith, I’ll give you this hamburger” is a legitimate offer by Jones, for if Smith refuses the offer he is not made worse off than he was before Jones made the offer. In contrast, “If you give me $5.00, Mr. Smith, I’ll not kill you” is not a legitimate offer. The reason is that Ms. Jones promises, if Mr. Smith does not agree, to make him worse off than he was before encountering Jones.

Put differently, in a free society there is a powerful presumption against anyone using threats of coercion to change the baseline from which each individual bargains. Armed robbers coercively – and of course without any justification – change the baseline from which their victims are then compelled to ‘bargain.’ Before encountering the bandit, the right to your life was controlled by you. Control of your life was part of the baseline from which you bargain with others. But by the very act of threateningly pointing a gun at you, the armed robber unilaterally transfers control of your life from you to her; the armed robber unilaterally changes the baseline from which you are now obliged to bargain.

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