Beware Public-Health Paternalists

by Don Boudreaux on March 20, 2022

in Archived writings, Country Problems, Current Affairs, Hubris and humility, Nanny State

My latest column for AIER is inspired by IEA’s Christopher Snowdon. In it, I – as does Snowdon – warn against the mix of faulty understanding and hubris that motivates what Snowdon calls “public health paternalists.” A slice:

In the minds of public-health paternalists, the body politic becomes almost a literal body. The aggregate (as described by statistics) is treated akin to a sentient entity that suffers health problems, many of which can be cured by this entity’s team of physicians – namely, public-health paternalists. And in a country with a population as large as that of the United States, the number of different health problems suffered by absolutely large numbers of individuals will be enormous, thus ensuring no end of opportunities for public-health paternalists to use the power of the state to proscribe and prescribe individuals’ behaviors.

But as Snowdon notes, public-health paternalists sense that, to justify their interventions, they need more than to point to scary statistics drawn from a large population. At least in societies with a liberal tradition – in societies that historically accord some deference to individuals to freely make their own choices – public-health paternalists must bolster the case for their officiousness by convincing the public that seemingly private decisions are not really private. Public-health paternalists thus insist, for example, that obese people are innocent victims of predatory marketing by companies such as McDonald’s, while smokers have been trapped by the vile tactics of Big Tobacco as well as by the peer pressure of simply being surrounded by friends who smoke.

According to public-health paternalists, therefore, almost no decisions that affect individuals’ health are truly ‘individual.’ Nearly all such decisions are either heavily determined by the actions of third parties, or themselves affect the choices of unsuspecting third parties.

Nothing is personal and private; everything is political and public. Because, according to public-health paternalists, a vast array of seemingly ‘private’ decisions are both the results of “externalities” and themselves the causes of “externalities,” the work of public-health paternalists is plentiful, while the power these ‘experts’ require to protect the health of the body politic is vast.

This perversion of classic public health into public-health paternalism is alarming. As public-health paternalism comes to dominate the field, persons attracted to study and practice public health will be, in contrast to traditional public-health scholars and officials, far more insistent on expanding public-health’s domain. Public-health paternalists will excel at the dark art of portraying as ‘public’ – and, hence, as appropriate targets of government regulation – many activities that traditionally and correctly are understood as private and, hence, as not appropriate targets of government regulation.

How much of the overreaction to COVID-19 is explained by the rise of public-health paternalism? I suspect an enormous amount. Public-health paternalists are not only already primed to misinterpret private choices as ones that impose ‘negative externalities’ on third parties, they are also especially skilled at peddling their misinterpretations to the general public. And so although the quite real contagiousness of the SARS-CoV-2 virus renders it a valid concern of classic public-health scholars and officials, the contagiousness and ‘publicness’ of other aspects of COVID were exaggerated in attempts to justify excessive government control over everyday affairs.

The most obvious example of an activity traditionally regarded as private and, thus, not properly subject to government control is speech and writing. Of course, no one has ever denied that speech and writing have effects on others; indeed, changing other people’s minds and hearts is the very purpose of much speech and writing. But in liberal civilization the strong presumption has been that individuals are to be trusted to judge for themselves the merit or demerit of whatever expressed thoughts they encounter. We’ve long recognized, and rightly feared, the danger of allowing government officials to superintend and suppress peaceful expression.

Yet with COVID, this presumption was significantly weakened, if not (yet) reversed. The US Congress held a hearing to investigate “the harm caused by the spread and monetisation of coronavirus misinformation online to try and identify the steps needed to stop the spread and promote accurate public health information,” while high-ranking US government public-health officials tried to orchestrate an effort to discredit the Great Barrington Declaration. A Cornell Medical School official, writing in the New York Times, openly called for suppressing the speech of physicians who dissent from the prevailing ‘expert’ consensus.

Peaceful expression and the exchange of ideas are now regarded by many elites as sources of potentially dangerous ‘externalities.’ And in the minds of public-health paternalists, the only way to protect the body politic from becoming lethally infected with what public-health paternalists themselves deem to be misinformation is for government to suppress the spread of viral ideas no less than it suppresses the spread of viral molecular structures. This ominous development during COVID surely was encouraged by the rise over the past few years of public-health paternalists.

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