Monday, February 14, 2011

Government's Absuive Behavior

Originally posted on Random Notes April 25, 2009

I have a question, but I need to phrase it in the abstract first, as we have grown so used to the specific mistreatment that we accept it as normal. Actually, even that may make it too clear of what I am speaking, so let us provide another example that has not yet come to pass, but might.

Let us suppose you manufacture sodas. It is your livelihood. You make a product that people enjoy, you make quite a bit of money, but you also provide a quality product.

Now, let us imagine a new health crusade arises, supported by doctors who prove, quite rightly, that too much soda is not healthy, that children who drink a lot of soda tend to become obese, and many other things. You do not dispute this, but start arguing that sodas are intended for occasional consumption, and can be quite enjoyable. However, the government, joining the popular health crusade, begins to threaten to prosecute you if you dispute these findings. Instead, they make you display prominent health warnings about the risks of soda consumption. And, should you dare to dispute any of these findings, or even place them in a context which the government finds "misleading", they threaten to prosecute you for false advertising.

But that isn't all. They start to ban sodas. First they cannot be sold in schools. Then they can't be sold to children at all. And then adults can only buy them in certain, specified shops. They also restrict advertising, first forbidding any ad they consider "targeted to children", then banning all advertising on television, finally even restricting what can and cannot be shown in print ads.

Seizing on popular outrage and confident of government support, lawyers start filing ever more absurd liability cases against you, starting with obese children with health issues, progressing to adults who consumed gallons of soda a day and suffered because of it. Finally, the states themselves file a massive suit. To avoid bankruptcy, you settle, agreeing, among other things, to provide money to be used to create ads showing the dangers of your product. In other words, agreeing to fund advertisements against your own product.

By now, I am sure readers have figured out this isn't about sodas, well not yet. Some may even have decided it is actually about tobacco. But that isn't quite true. Some of the specifics are about tobacco, but in reality, the general outline applies to many "bad" products, including tobacco, alcohol and firearms, and gradually including fast food, candy, sodas and other products as well. In fact, some of this also applies to pornographic movie theaters, bars, and other businesses which have faced similar attacks on a local level.

Now, the problem is, being only human, many conservatives have accepted the rationale that these attacks are justified as these are "bad" products. But that is the very problem. What is a bad product? Who decides? And why?

There should logically be only two products: legal and illegal. If a product is legal, then it should be sold, without prohibitions, except those that apply to all products. If it is illegal, then it should be prohibited. What makes cigarettes and alcohol and guns and pornography "bad"? They are harmful? So are hundreds of other products that are sold without restriction. That they lead people to make bad decisions? First of all, no product makes anyone do anything, people choose to do what they do. But even if products did somehow lead people astray, many perfectly legal goods do so as well. Shopaholics can be led into debt by any good, should we ban all purchases? Or at least restrict them?

There is just something grotesque about saying that a product is legal then treating the purveyors as villains because we decide their product is "bad". If it is "bad", in the sense of harmful with no benefit, then no one would buy it. Obviously some consumers find it beneficial, at least enough to outweigh any harm. In their eyes, it is not "bad". So, unless we are willing to say they are wrong, and not entitled to their beliefs, then we should allow the "bad" products to sell a any other good. (Unless we are going to argue some people know better than others, and must be put in charge. But that seems contrary to both libertarian and conservative beliefs in the sovereignty of the individual.)

Even if you think that some goods are "bad" and should be regulated, everyone must agree that it is simply obscene to prevent a company from pleading their side, and, worse still, forcing them to fund advertisements against themselves. I know the cigarette settlement was technically a civil liability case, and so not government action, but as the states commissioned the lawyers, that is the thinnest of fig leaves for what is, in all but name, government extortion. If nothing else, cigarette companies should be forgiven from having to pay for self-destructive advertisements.

Then again, I am sure some will find reasons to disagree with me, they will argue that these things really are "bad" and regulating them is sensible. However,  I have to ask them, by what standard? And are they sure that everyone agrees with their beliefs? And if not, what gives government the right to impose one person's belief on another? If even one persons thinks a product gives more benefit than harm, who are we to tell him it is not his choice to make?

POSTSCRIPT


I deal with this topics at greater length in the following posts:

Standing By My Principles
For Your Own Good
Medical Regulations
It Is Time
Shameless Self-Promotion
Unintended Consequences I
Unintended Consequences II
A Question
Who Does It Harm?
Manipulating the Law
It Doesn't Matter to ME...
Medical Regulation II
We're From the Government and We're Here To Help You
Another Thought on Regulation
Absolute Values
I have also written a few posts on the role of government which seem specifically relevant to this argument:
Why I Am Not A Libertarian
The Citizen Dichotomy
My Vision of Government
My Vision of Government Part II
Smaller Government , Fair Weather Friends and Special Cases
The Benefits of Federalism
Fairness and the Free Market
A Question of Perception
The Endless Cycle of Intervention
An Analogy For Government
Planning For Imperfection
The Intellectual Elite
Appealing to Arrogance
Conservatives and the "Big Picture"
Conspiracy Theories
As many observant readers may have noticed, this argument also would work to support decriminalizing drugs. And, as I support that as well, that is not a mark against it in my mind. However I am sure that will figure in at least some arguments against this post. (My own thoughts are covered pretty well in my sorely neglected blog "Examining the War on Drugs", as well as several posts mentioned above.)

Originally Published in Examining the War on Drugs on 2009/09/29.

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