Tag Archives: government’s role

Drink Your Milk (Pasteurized)

There are probably a million policy arguments about food, and what the government’s role in food safety ought to be.

Yesterday, my cousin–a respected cardiologist–sent me a document warning about the documented health dangers of drinking raw milk, and what he assured me is an ill-conceived and dangerous movement to change current laws that make selling raw milk illegal. Proponents of the change insist–in the face of overwhelming research suggesting otherwise–that raw milk is not only safe, but able to cure a variety of diseases.

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg is under attack from everyone from libertarians to Jon Stewart for his effort to ban the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces. And the movement against genetically-enhanced foods continues to gain adherents. (I confess to sympathy with many of their arguments myself.)

These debates raise the threshold policy question: what is the role of government? Are rules against raw milk evidence that we live in a nanny state, or are those rules precisely the sort of protections for which government must be responsible?

Most citizens do not have access to scientific evidence nor the ability to interpret that evidence. I know I don’t. So what should government do when experts identify a “clear and present” danger?

Unsurprisingly, I think the answer is: it depends.

In some cases–perhaps most–government’s role should probably be limited to that of informer, publicizing the danger and ensuring that individuals possess the relevant information when making personal choices. But in other cases the danger is either too serious or the harm to others who haven’t chosen to risk the behavior too great. The smoking ban falls in the latter category.

The raw milk controversy underlines the most basic tension presented by the libertarian principle that we should be free to live and do as we wish unless and until we harm the person or property of a non-consenting other: what is harm?

To which we might add, what should government do when a harm is confirmed by science but not obvious to reasonable observers? Or when scientists disagree?

In an increasingly complex world, where technology and genetic manipulation make the accoutrements of everyday life more mysterious and impenetrable, these aren’t easy questions.


A Succinct Prescription

One of the things I enjoy about Facebook is my friends’ regular posting of cartoons, pithy sayings and thought-provoking quotations (some real, some highly doubtful…).

This morning, someone posted a photo of a sign held by a member of the “Occupy” movement. The sign enumerated the “demands” of the 99% –healthcare for all, jobs, good public education and a clean environment.

That really doesn’t seem to be too much to expect.

When we ask THE political question–what should government do?–most liberal democracies have answered that government is the collective mechanism we use to provide those things individuals cannot provide alone. Economists call this “market failure,” but the basic idea is that, in order to flourish as individual citizens, we require an infrastructure. To use a local example, individuals buy their own cars, but they need roads on which to drive them, traffic signals to direct them safely, etc. The over-arching question in free societies is always: what should government provide, and what should be left to the private and nonprofit sectors? What can people do for themselves through the market or through voluntary associations, and what must be provided collectively–i.e., “socialized.” (Yes, Tea Party people, that’s what that word means.)

The list on the placard, while not exhaustive, seems pretty reasonable to me. Individuals acting alone cannot protect the environment. Health and education are not consumer goods, they are public goods–and leaving them to the vagaries of the market leads to huge inequities and inefficiencies. As for jobs, I’m one of those throwbacks who thinks we ought to seriously debate the merits of government as the employer of last resort.

Health, jobs, education and clean air and water. What will the ungrateful masses demand next?