Viscusi on Paternalist Policies

August 16, 2007

Kip Viscusi was recently interviewed by the Richmond Fed’s Region Focus magazine. He discusses the issue of the government’s role in tobacco regulation, as well as the government’s role in controlling everyday lifestyle choices. Here’s an excerpt:

Q: In your view, is there a role for normative analysis when working on issues involving risk? For instance, should we place some value – even if, ultimately, it is merely symbolic – on the notion that people have an obligation to behave safely and that legislators and regulators have a duty to try to make them act in that manner?

Viscusi: I have some limited sympathy for that type of argument. We do care about individual health. That’s why we spend a lot of money on various government health-care programs. We don’t want our fellow citizens to be ill. So that’s a legitimate concern. On the other hand, let’s say I decide that I don’t think anyone should endanger his life by working in a steel mill. In that case, you are imposing your own preferences on someone else and in the process lowering his perceived welfare. That’s a type of paternalism that I think is really hard to justify.

When it comes to these types of things, most people really don’t understand economics. I was at a conference that was attended by one of the leading health policy experts in Europe – he’s even knighted – and he said that we should give health care to everyone. My response was: Would you require cars to be as safe as they possibly could be? And he said yes. But that would mean that even the cheapest cars would cost a lot of money and many people would not be able to buy them. You can’t just wave a magic wand and eliminate risk for free, which is what people want to do. If you restrict people from taking jobs, if you restrict the foods that they eat, if you place limits on how much they can weigh, all of these things will reduce their welfare as they perceive it. The proper role of government is to give people enough information so they can make reasonable decisions, and after that step aside and allow them to make their own choices.

To read the entire interview, click here. http://www.richmondfed.org/publications/economic_research/region_focus/spring_2007/pdf/interview.pdf


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