Filed under: Libertarianism
Commenter johnbr asks whether it’s fair to say that I “have little faith in people’s abilities to think for themselves and overcome societal/structural pressures so they can ‘do the right thing’ (in this case, eat right and exercise).”
I think there are two ways to respond to this. The first is that in many habit-forming areas of life, evidence shows that individual rational benefits-maximizing decisionmaking just doesn’t influence behavior very much. These include sexual behavior, eating behavior, exercise and smoking. And that fact is reflected in common-sense wisdom (“I just couldn’t help myself”, or basically any area where people talk about having trouble controlling or disciplining themselves). Such behavior may shift as social norms shift, but it’s unlikely to shift because individuals just decide to change. Then there’s another type of behavior: transportation or other infrastructure-determined behavior, where individual choice is only of limited relevance because the decisions about what options will be available (and how easily) are made at a collective level. If I live in LA, it’s hard to decide to commute by bike. If I live in Amsterdam, it’s hard to decide to commute by car. Neither is impossible, but the different communities have decided to build different kinds of roads and housing so the choices are skewed in opposite directions.
Note that this is crazy, because LA has fabulous weather for biking 300 days out of the year, while Amsterdam has lousy weather for biking 150 days out of the year.
But the second point is that I actually don’t know really know what johnbr means by having faith in individuals’ ability to overcome societal pressure. I mean, given the current socioeconomic incentives, people are currently acting the way they’re acting, across some distribution of behaviors described on a curve. And they’re likely to go on acting pretty much the same way, on average, unless something about the socioeconomic incentives changes. From 1980 to 2004, obesity rates among adults in the US doubled, and rates among children tripled; over 30% of Americans are currently obese. Were they choosing to become obese? Given that 58% say they want to lose weight, that seems unlikely.
So this leaves you with three options. Either you think society should take actions that will change the infrastructure and the socioeconomic incentives such that individuals’ behavior will shift to, for example, make people healthier and less obese. Or you think that individuals’ behavior is by definition optimal right now, since this is what individuals are in fact doing, and the statement “Americans are fatter than they should be” is meaningless. Or, finally, you think that while the current overall situation may not be optimal, it is individuals’ own faults if they’re in situations they don’t like, and society shouldn’t do anything to make it easier for them to get out of it. I find this a passive and morally vindictive attitude towards life. But the idea that people’s “ability to think for themselves and overcome societal pressures” presents a possible solution to large-scale, population-level problems seems to me literally incomprehensible. Individual people sometimes abruptly get up off the couch and get their acts together, though even there, they almost always do so only if there are social resources to back them up. But the idea that 15% of America’s adult population could all abruptly get up off the couch and get their acts together because they all made the same individual decision to do so seems to me not to reflect any of the kinds of things that ever happen in human societies. It’s like thinking that the unemployment rate could drop from 10% to 5% if Americans would just get up off their butts and find jobs.
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