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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Amartya Sen: On Incomplete Libertarian Arguments

Nobel prize in economics winner Amartya Sen tells libertarians their arguments against smoking bans are founded upon "an incomplete libertarian argument":

Unrestrained smoking is a libertarian half-way house, by Amartya Sen, Commentary, Financial Times: Proposals ... for fairly draconian bans on smoking in public places have caused much anger and protest. This is as it should be, since the issue is controversial. But the contrary arguments demand critical scrutiny. One line of critique questions the use of statistical evidence for policymaking. Another invokes the importance of liberty to do what one likes in one’s own life.

David Hockney, the distinguished artist, has argued that he has read “all their statistics” about the connection between smoking and disease, but he must observe that “fate plays part in life, that mysterious forces are at work on life”: “Medical statisticians cannot grasp this, but almost everyone else does.” What, then, should we make of such foundational doubts about the relevance of statistical reasoning? ...

I do not see how we can rely on invoking “mysterious forces” and ignore arguments based on assessments of likelihood...

A seemingly more plausible argument, based on the value of freedom, has been presented against smoking bans by Martin Wolf ... People have the right to do what they like with their own lives. While there is possible harm from breathing in smoke from others ..., that is not in itself decisive. Mr Wolf argued that ... a necessary justification” for interfering with liberty ...[is that] “Intervention ... be,” ... “both effective and carry costs proportionate to likely gains.”

I agree with Mr Wolf that freedom is centrally important. But how should we see the demands of freedom when habit-forming behaviour today restricts the freedom of the same person in the future? Once acquired, the habit of smoking is hard to kick, and it can be asked, with some plausibility, whether youthful smokers have an unqualified right to place their future selves in such bondage.

A similar issue was addressed by the leading apostle of liberty, John Stuart Mill, when he argued against a person’s freedom to sell himself or herself in slavery. Mill concluded his discussion of this issue, in On Liberty, by noting: “The principle of freedom cannot require that the person be free not to be free”, and that “it is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom”. Mill’s principle may demand more discussion but it is important that the practical case for tobacco control is not dismissed on the basis of an incomplete libertarian argument.

Another question to ask is: who exactly are the “others” who are affected? Passive smokers are not the only people who might be harmed. If smokers are made ill by ... smoking, then the society can either take the view that these victims of self-choice have no claim to public resources ..., or more leniently (and I believe more reasonably) it could accept that these people still qualify to get social help. If the former, we would live in a monstrously unforgiving society... If the latter, then the interests of “others” would surely be affected through the sharing of the costs of public services.

Libertarian logic for non-interference ... can have extraordinarily stern implications in invalidating the right to assistance from the society when one is hit by self-harming behaviour. If that annulment is not accepted, then the case for libertarian “immunity” from interference is ... undermined.

We should not readily agree to be held captive in a half-way house erected by an inadequate assessment of the demands of liberty.

    Posted by on Sunday, February 11, 2007 at 04:05 PM in Economics, Regulation | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (43)

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