Thursday, 5 February 2009

Don't take this, it will do you good

My attention has been brought by Mr Englishman to a most frightening individual by the name of Dr Alan Maryon-Davis. In an article on the BBC website this double-barrelled poltroon urges greater and greater intrusion by the law into what we may put into our bodies and where we may do it. His pompous, authoritarian attitude has been addressed by several commentators already including (do not read these if you are offended by strong language) Mr Smoker (here) and Mr Kitchen (here).

I have a good friend who is a doctor, a senior and well-respected consultant. He wants to ban anything that is potentially bad for people unless he enjoys doing it himself. To him, restrictions on booze are an oppressive and unnecessary interference with personal freedom and ancient social habits, whereas hunting and boxing should be banned forever and infringement punished with heavy sentences. Smoking should be permitted in the home, because he sometimes takes a ciggy, but it should be banned in pubs and restaurants because he prefers a smoke free atmosphere in such places. There is nothing fair, balanced or objective in the position he takes and he couldn't care less whether others would find their enjoyment of life restricted or lose their jobs.

It is not for me to say whether Dr Double-Barrelled is as shallow and irrationally selfish in his authoritarianism as my friend, so I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he really believes what he says. In order to assess the full horror of his attitude it is necessary to look at what he argues for and the reasons he gives. I have linked to the article above so I won't copy it, I think a fair summary is as follows: (1) the little people want government to manage their lives to protect them from themselves, (2) the little people are happy with the things government has already done to protect them from self-harm, (3) some of the harm the little people do to themselves it actually done by big business manipulating their feeble minds into thinking they want some thing they don't, (4) the government has done what it has done because the little people wanted them to and (5) the little people should suggest more and more ways in which the government can protect them from themselves. I have tried not to slant this summary, I think it is a fair synopsis of his article.

In this field, as in so many, blinkered thinking can have undesirable consequences. Underlying everything he says are two assumptions, both entirely without foundation. The first is that we little people are inherently self-destructive and must be protected from ourselves. The second is that the government has merely reflected public desire to be protected from themselves. Both propositions are so obviously and fundamentally absurd that one is forced to question why he has put them forward. I'll say a few things about the assumptions and then take a stab at his motivation.

Take the first assumption, that we are inherently self-destructive. That assumption is made clear in his argument that measures such as making the wearing of seat belts compulsory and banning smoking in places of work and entertainment were introduced to protect us from ourselves. By definition he is saying that without these measures we would happily keep running a merry path over the edge of a cliff. He implicitly rejects the notion that we know we are taking a risk and have voluntarily accepted that risk because we also perceive a benefit and, for us, the benefit outweighs the risk.

Every time I travel in a car, fly in an aeroplane, eat anything, drink anything, walk anywhere or, if it comes to it, do anything at all, there is a risk involved. If I travel in my car I know how it has been maintained, if I travel in someone else's I don't. If I fly with Virgin or Continental I take less of a risk than if I fly with an airline that has a less than impeccable safety record, but I might have to pay more. If I eat something I have cooked I know how it has been prepared, if I eat what someone else has cooked I don't. And so it goes on. We always balance the benefit we think we will receive against the risk we think we are taking.

The role of government is to protect us from dangers posed by others and over which we have no control ourselves and to inform us of risks we might not be able to assess for ourselves because we have insufficient knowledge. One aspect of this is legislation to seek to ensure that services provided to others are reasonably safe. For example we have stringent laws about food preparation by commercial caterers. One reason for these laws is, of course, to try to minimise the risk of food poisoning, but that is not the only reason. Hotels, restaurants and cafes are a significant part of our economy and they can only be a significant part of the economy if people have trust in their food being safe. Provided we trust them to play by the rules, we perceive little risk in giving them our custom. Some we don't trust because we have seen cockroaches nibbling at the salad bar and heard the scurrying sound of rats in the kitchen; we will give them a wide berth. Others we do not know whether to trust and the laws about food preparation help to give us reassurance.

Activities such as smoking cigarettes and drinking booze are not normally undertaken in order to shorten our lives. They are undertaken because, for those who like those things, they improve the quality of life. We can debate, until the cows stop mooing, whether there is any objective benefit from the inhalation of smoke created by burning dried tobacco leaves or from drinking alcohol, but that is not the issue. I do not smoke and drink as part of an objective exercise of living the perfect life. I do so because those activities give me pleasure. They might not give you pleasure, that's fine, you won't do them and will seek your pleasure in other ways. Like all smokers and drinkers (other than those who have been wholly isolated from newspapers, television and radio for the last thirty years) I am aware that smoking and drinking are activities with a potential downside. No doubt I have witnessed part of that downside already, having suffered a serious heart attack at an unusually early age. I continue to smoke and drink because I place the subjective benefit I receive above the potential peril I risk.

The crucial question is the extent to which government should decide what risks the little people should be allowed to take. There is a massive gulf between government advising us of risks we might not appreciate and government preventing us from taking those risks once we have been alerted to them. Advising us and leaving us to decide is the position of a government that trusts the people and knows its authority comes from the people. Preventing us from taking risks to which we have been alerted is the position of a government that does not trust the people and believes its authority exists independently of the people.

None of this has anything to do with activities which harm third parties to a sufficient degree that the law should step in to protect the innocent because that situation is outside Dr Double-Barrelled's first assumption. His first assumption is that we little people wish to harm ourselves. We don't. We weigh risks. I have described it as a balance between potential harm and potential benefit, but it can equally well be put as a balance between two types of harm. We balance our assessment of the risk of being caused harm by undertaking a particular activity against our assessment of the harm of forgoing that activity.

Take a simple example. Mr Ordinary has worked all week at the job he doesn't enjoy very much and wants to spend his small amount of "treat" money on something to give him pleasure. If he finds pleasure it balances his week, if he doesn't it adds to his overall tally of misery. His particular pleasure is eight pints of lager and a chicken vindaloo in the company of his friends. He knows that if he meets Fred, Bob and Charlie at the Stoat and Scrotum for five pints and they then visit Curry Heaven for a chicken vindaloo and three more pints, he will go home a very happy man. It will make his week and prepare him for the next. You can isolate the eight pints and say that is a harmful amount to drink in one night. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, that doesn't matter one jot. You can isolate the burning hot curry and say it is bad for his digestive tract and bowel movement. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, that doesn't matter one jot. What matters is that it is what he enjoys doing and, if you want it in quasi-medical terms, that will be better for him than drinking tap water with a meal of tofu nut-roast surprise. It will be better for him because life is about more than the body, it is also about the mind and emotion and happiness.

People like Dr Double-Barrelled seem to have no comprehension that dying at fifty as a result of the things that have given you a happy life is, for those who choose that life, better than dying at eighty-five after a lifetime of pious abstinence. He clearly believes that smoking and drinking a lot are harmful, but he only looks at one side of the equation. The other side of the equation is the subjective quality of life of the individual concerned. He cannot measure that, and no amount of self-righteous bleating by pompous prigs like him can change the fact that real people take decisions based on how they value the things he wants to ban.

This missive is already long, so I will deal with his second assumption quickly, it is that the government has legislated to reflect a public desire to be protected from themselves. I defy him, or anyone, to find me a single person in this country who holds the view "I'm glad they have banned smoking in pubs because I never wanted to smoke in the pub, I only did it because it wasn't a crime". It is utterly absurd.

You will have to read his article to see just how confused and contradictory his argument is. I am reasonably sure I know why he says what he says. Here, again, I give him the benefit of the doubt and do not suggest that he is just putting forward a case which, if accepted, will keep him employed on a fat salary at the taxpayers' expense until his diet of salt-free tofu, fat-free lentils, assorted vegetation and additive-free water takes its toll. Nor do I suggest that he would ever be so hypocritical as to eat a diet containing other than salt-free tofu, fat-free lentils, assorted vegetation and additive-free water. Nor do I suggest he is a simple-minded ego-maniac determined to build his own little empire based on gathering power over the little people. Nor do I suggest that he is so arrogant that he thinks he knows better than Mr Ordinary how Mr Ordinary should live his life. Nor do I suggest that he has the capacity to see the contradictions in his own article. I think he says what he says because he has absolutely no understanding that life is about more than longevity.

That, of itself, makes his opinion completely worthless. Whether it also renders him unfit to hold the position he does is for others to decide.


The Great Simpleton said...

Excellent argument, as always. I haven't read the article but I heard him on Today. He started by claiming to be a Libertarian then set about banning everything he doesn't approve of. At this point the radio went off amid much effing and blinding.

TheFatBigot said...

I wonder whether he has a view on the health risk of listening to people like him. They make my blood pressure boil, it can't be good for me.

Bob's Head Revisited said...

Excellently put, FB.
I did read the poltroon's article, and boy do I wish I hadn't.

davidc said...

I was with you until I got to "fat-free" lentils. Why not, say, "arsenic-free" lentils. OK, you are not advocating a ban but I thought it fell into the category of incitement to ban.