Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The unlimited possibilities of nannyism

There’s a great post by Julian Sanchez at his site, taking Ben Adler to task for saying this:

This clearly expresses a fundamental tenet of conservative/libertarian thinking: that engaging in risky behavior with serious social costs is an entitlement. People who are injured by metal bats, or fall ill from smoking or fatty food, cost the rest of us money. We pay their emergency room bill, their Medicare bills or their Social Security disablity insurance.

Which leads Sanchez to remark:

You start with a paradigm case of a self regarding act—choosing to engage in risk behaviors with your own body—which traditional liberal principles would place outside the sphere of state regulation as a core component of personal autonomy. But throw some public funds into the mix and—Abracadabra!—what had been the exercise of an individual right is transformed into the "imposition" of a cost on society. No behavior is so private that you can't regulate or ban it, so long as you're willing to subsidize it first!

This is, of course, exactly how it works. There are limits to how far the average “liberal” wants to take it (though that seems to change every year as they grow ever-bolder), but the idea that the state can regulate whatever it chooses to subsidize is implicitly totalitarian.

Now, there are probably plenty of liberals who consider this potential for unlimited statism to be a feature, not a bug. But liberals never seem to imagine the possibility of someone other than them using the wonderful machine they’ve built. Consider just one possibility.

Is there any principled argument a liberal nanny statist could make against conservatives who want to regulate consensual sex between adults, if such regulation could be dressed up (as it sometimes is) in public health language? The liberal might claim that controlling sex is fundamentally different than controlling smoking or eating, but I don’t see why; both involve state control over what an adult peacefully does with his or her own body. If there is a difference at all, it is one of degree rather than kind. (If anything, I would say that state control of food is more intrusive, since it means losing the right of choice over something virtually everyone does everyday.) The principle that justifies one justifies the other.

The taxpayers often end up paying a financial cost because of sex- medical expenses for sexually transmitted diseases, and of course the cost of caring for the children of people who can’t support their own families. Clearly, a great deal of sex is “risky behavior with serious social costs.” If we don’t have an “entitlement” to do such things, and if one accepts the view that the state should force us to refrain from peaceful but potentially risky activities that might impose a cost on the government, I see no principled reason why the state shouldn’t step in. (This line of argument could be especially lucrative for antigay types who want to bring back sodomy laws.)

What can the liberal nanny statist say? He can make pragmatic arguments against regulating- he can say that the enforcement costs of policing bedrooms will be too high, or maybe driving illicit sex underground would have other bad social consequences- but if he’s consistent he can’t simply say, “It’s just not the government’s business.” If he does say that (as liberals, not the most consistent of people, often do), the conservative can point to the long line of arguments and precedents provided by liberals. Because if you take the underlying premises of the nanny state seriously, everything is the government’s business.

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Anonymous said...

Exactly, and why people need to become more aware and involved in this multi-theatre battle with unnecessary gov't regulation.

Michael Price said...

But of course sex in middle aged men seems to lengthen life. So presumably midlle aged men having sex are healthier and therefore need less government health care. So for some people sex should therefore be compulsory!