Alanna Shaikh took a few thing I said on Twitter and expanded them into this blog post. Basically I was noting — and she in turn highlighted — that on matters of paternalism vs. choice, economists’ default is consumer choice, whereas the public health default is paternalism.

This can and does result in lousy policies from both ends — for example, see my long critique of Bill Easterly’s rejection of effective but mildly paternalistic programs due to (in my view) relying too heavily on the economists’ default position.

I was reminder of all this by a recent post on the (awesomely named) Worthwhile Canadian Initiative. The blogger, Frances Wooley, quotes a from a microeconomics textbook: “As a budding economist, you want to avoid lines of reasoning that suggest people habitually do things that make them worse off…” Can you imagine a public health textbook including that sentence? Hah! Wooley, responded, “The problem with this argument is that it flies in the face of the abundant empirical evidence that people habitually overeat, overspend, and do other things that make them worse off.”

The historical excesses and abuses of public health are also rooted in this paternalistic streak, just as many of the absurdities of economics are rooted in its own defaults. I think most folks even in these two professions fall somewhere in between these extremes, but that a lot of disagreements (and lack of respect) between the fields stems from this fundamental difference in starting points.

(See also some related thoughts from Terence at Waylaid Dialectic that I saw after writing the initial version of this post.)



12 2012

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