Thursday, December 12, 2013

Paternalism an unhealthy threat to freedom

A wrong-headed approach to developing public policy is justifying the slow and incremental corrosion of our basic freedoms in the name of health-at-all-costs.

It's hard to ignore the increase in paternalistic regulations imposed by Australian governments, justified by research showing the cost of government inaction to regulate our choices.

This trend is symptomatic of the "evidence-based policy" approach adopted by government.  Former PM Kevin Rudd outlined the broad spirit of this approach on a 2010 episode of ABC1's Q&A.

In response to a question about whether the government would increase the drinking age to 21 he said "if the evidence is there and it's capable of being proven that it works, then we look at these things and make a decision".

But public policy is not driven by evidence, it is informed by evidence.  Public policy is driven by the political values of those elected to govern.  Those values determine what issues the government believes needs to be tackled, how they then approach it, how they weigh evidence, and the policy solutions ultimately proposed.

An "evidence-based approach" amounts to discarding the choice of democracy for government by technocratic bureaucracy, particularly when much of the evidence is financed by government to justify their decisions.

Since 2008, at least $100 million has been provided by the commonwealth to finance research that could subsequently be used to justify paternalist policies.

Not all of the research is without merit.  But any behaviour that ultimately leads to perceived higher health costs jeopardises public finances, therefore justifying restrictions on individual choice.  A left-wing activist might call the buck-passing of health costs from individuals to the government "privatising the gains and socialising the costs".

So instead of finding a way to privatise the costs, the solution by government has been to remove choice and incrementally reduce people's freedoms.

This approach to policy turns liberal democracy on its head.  Free societies have always had to trade some individual freedom to maintain the collective institutions to preserve and protect the freedoms and choices of themselves and others.

That is not what is occurring.  Instead the right to self-determination is now considered too expensive and is being discarded in name of the collective's interests through the introduction of paternalist policies.

Unsurprisingly tobacco is the market leader for paternalism because of its direct link to cancer.

The product faces specific taxes, advertising restrictions and sponsorship bans, purchasing limits, restrictions on where it can be consumed, warning labels, product placement restrictions, licensing of retailers, ingredient restrictions and, most recently, plain packaging.

Proposals have also been considered for minimum prices, increasing the age of consumption, specific licences to consume the product and an outright ban.

Parallel regulations on gaming are nearly equivalent, for example on-machine warning labels for pokies.  Alcohol faces similar restrictions and has been the focus of calls for additional taxes and minimum pricing regimes.

While there are relatively limited paternalistic regulations imposed on salty, sugary and fatty foods, almost all regulations and taxes on other products have been proposed for food.  These regulations aren't just targeted at consumer products, but they are the primary focus.

The recent, bizarre round of state-based bans of sun tanning beds, while the sun remains unregulated, is another example of discarded freedom to save the public purse.

But even much of the evidence used to justify these policies is dubious.  Cost studies are regularly used to highlight the taxpayer-funded bill if individual choice is not regulated.  So long as it only includes public costs, such as hospital bills, they can at least be broadly accurate.

But increasingly "social cost" studies are used that seek to deliberately pool public and private costs to inflate the final figure and make it more alarming for government.  A study by New Zealand's Canterbury University, The Cost of Cost Studies, found that "by presenting costs drinkers impose upon themselves as social costs to the country, (the cost of illness) measures help build popular support for paternalistic policies".  The same principles are applied for other product categories.

The best way to demonstrate the inflated nature of social costs is to highlight the claims.  The often-cited annual estimated social costs for alcohol, gambling, obesity and tobacco is just shy of $110 billion.

Meanwhile the federal government's Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that in 2009-10 the total cost of Australia's health bill was just over $120 billion.  Evidence is vital to ensure public policy is designed well, but it should not be the sole determinant of policy outcomes, especially when the cost of lost freedom is not priced.

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