Nanny & the libertarians

"All I want to do is go to the movies, have a soda and popcorn" says Michael Graham. But with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg banning supersized sodas and officials talking about extending the regulations to popcorn, conservatives like Graham are feeling nanny’s hot breath on the backs of their neck. Many are wondering what’s next.

Here in Australia the nanny state is blamed for restrictions on smoking, drinking, gambling and the Mexican wave. But as Chris Berg of the Institute of Public Affairs explains, it’s not just left wingers who like to engage in paternalism. Conservatives have been both enthusiastic censors and paternalistic colonialists.

In contrast to leftists and conservatives, libertarians present themselves as principled opponents of paternalism. But it turns out even libertarians can’t be counted on to defend your right to smoke, drink and snack yourself into an early grave.

Consider the situation of employees at Weyco, an insurance consulting firm in Michigan where company boss told his employees, "As of January 1st, 2005, anyone that has nicotine in their body will be fired".

Twenty employees quit smoking and the four who refused to take a breathalyzer test were fired. The boss, Howard Weyers, explained his position this way: "I pay the bills around here. So, I’m going to set the expectations".

Weyers insists that smoking is not a civil right. "Weyco is proud of its position on tobacco and wellness", he says. "For every smoker who quits because of it, many others — family members, friends, co-workers — will be thankful the person has chosen a healthier lifestyle."

Most libertarians have no objection to this kind of paternalism. If an employer decides to nanny his or her workforce, libertarians will explain that workers are free to seek employment elsewhere. And if they can’t find another job, then that’s just tough.

The key libertarian principle is freedom of contract. The government shouldn’t get in the way of contracts made by consenting adults. So if an employer wants to stipulate what employees do in their free time and workers choose to accept the contract, the government shouldn’t try to interfere.

In a libertarian utopia an employer would be free to implement their own version of the Northern Territory Intervention. As the only private sector employer in a remote Indigenous community, they might choose to pay their workers using a Basics Card that can only be used at a company store. Naturally the store would stock only healthy products like fresh fruit and vegetables. The employer might also regularly test workers for drugs and alcohol — not in order to prevent accidents at work — but in order to encourage workers to adopt a healthy lifestyle.

According to Friedrich Hayek’s definition, this would be coercion. In the Constitution of Liberty he defined coercion as "such control of the environment or circumstances of a person by another that, in order to avoid greater evil, he is forced to act not according to a coherent plan of his own but to serve the ends of another."

Libertarians object to coercion by governments. They strenuously object to coercion when it’s directed against employers or corporations trying to sell things like cigarettes, alcohol and junk food. But they don’t object to coercion when it’s part of the labour contract.

So it turns out libertarians don’t have a principled objection to nannying. In some cases, they’re all for it.

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43 Responses to Nanny & the libertarians

  1. Pedro says:

    No, they have a principled objection to nannying by the govt, not to nannying generally. Surely your point is silly. The govt is a truly powerful nanny, nobody else is because you dont have to work at Smokers Rn’t Us if you don’t want to.

  2. Patrick says:

    And you think libertarians should be on ‘your side’???? Why do you go to so much effort to troll people?

  3. JC says:

    Libertarianism really seems to bother you, doesn’t it Don? What Weyco did is in perfect keeping with libertarian principles because the crucial point is the relationship of the individual with the state and how one perceives it. That’s why someone who is ostensibly deeply religious like Ron Paul can be defined as a libertarian. He doesn’t allow his personal beliefs to intrude and restrict the natural rights of others through the power of the state. In the example you gave the employees are in a voluntary contract with the firm. They can leave whenever they like and are also employees at will. He can’t jail, fine or execute them if they disobeyed him. The only things that can happen are the employees are terminated or they leave. Try doing that by refusing to pay tax, using or selling illicit drugs in America for instance.

    Personally I think the boss is a dick, but what he’s really doing is really disguising his true intentions by the fact that he attempting to save money on healthcare insurance costs. The comment about “anyone that has nicotine in their body will be fired”, gave it away. He’s attempting to save a few dollars in health insurance costs through premium reduction.

    I think you’re missing an important point in your northern territory example. If both sides are happy with the arrangement, then who are we to interfere in the wage substitution? If the employee doesn’t like it he could always move to another town or even a big city for work. How about the question of trade offs, which for lots of people seems to be a very difficult concept to grapple with….Lots of senior academic economists even appear to have difficulty with it too… What if the aboriginal likes living in that remote area and is prepared to accept the new arrangement as against having to move for work?

    The NT example is really difficult to come to grips with, for a host of reasons. If the employee were a good worker why would any employer want to restrict his wage if he was being paid market rate? I don’t see the rationale. In other words you stick forward an essentially preposterous example and expect people to put up rational argument to beat it down. What if the employee was drunk most days on the job and wasn’t performing, but the employer took pity on him and offered conditional employment?

    The NT example is also a simple variation of the old one about monopsony power of one employer in a town, which any able economist is able to knock down in a few paras. These examples only exist in textbooks. This has also been refuted by the fact that it would be impossible to maintain a hold over workers by either keeping them in the town at materially lower wage rates or preventing another firm coming in and bidding them away at higher wage rates thereby arbitraging the differential.

    You know, you’ve been trying for years to beat down Libertarianism, but I think still haven’t found any chink in the amour. You know why? It has a cascading logic that is impossible to destroy except with moral positions, which aren’t really logically based.

    .

  4. jtfsoon says:

    Why isn’t it ‘principled’ to distinguish between paternalism that is in effect enforced as a rule of law vs the outcome of contractual negotiations (where placing anti-paternalist restrictions on those contractual outcomes is itself a form of paternalism!)

    What JC and Pedro said.

    You can do better than this, Don.

  5. desipis says:

    You know why? It has a cascading logic that is impossible to destroy except with moral positions, which aren’t really logically based.

    You do need a sense of morality more complex than “shit happens” in order to take issue with libertarianism. A sense morality is also needed to take issue with totalitarianism. Conveniently choosing a set of moral values that support your political ideology doesn’t make it somehow superior than others.

    Libertarianism might be a well defined and internally logical system. However I find it tends to rely on moral values that I don’t agree with and depends on assumptions that I don’t see as being true in the real world. The most significant of which is the assumption that the coercive power of the government is the only personally repressive, economically damaging or morally repugnant force in society worthy of political consideration.

  6. desipis says:

    Why isn’t it ‘principled’ to distinguish between paternalism that is in effect enforced as a rule of law vs the outcome of contractual negotiations

    From the individual’s perspective when “go get another job” is as practical as “go live in another country” there is no justification to distinguish between the two. When the power differential between two contracting parties becomes significant enough, the empowered party can unilaterally create private law for the other party. This effectively makes their relationship more akin to that between a government and its subjects than that between negotiating individuals.

  7. JC says:

    The most significant of which is the assumption that the coercive power of the government is the only personally repressive, economically damaging or morally repugnant force in society worthy of political consideration.

    Ummm yea… there’s decent history behind it, like perhaps 100 million killed last century when the state goes amok, thereby gving some validity to this very disturbing Yale study that the moment you stick a uniform of officialdom on humans their bullshit meter seems to shut down and willingly become obedient serfs to the state.

    http://reason.com/archives/2009/01/06/would-you-have-been-a-nazi

    It’s how you end up with Finkelsteining free press and Clive Hamilton on government boards. Hamilton, at one stage came up with siccing the security services on climate sceptics. (what a remarkably unique?)

  8. JC says:

    From the individual’s perspective when “go get another job” is as practical as “go live in another country” there is no justification to distinguish between the two.

    Oh crap. You don’t own the job and the hirer doesn’t own you. In other words there’s a voluntary exchange. Getting turfed out of a country is not the same thing. In fact it’s laughable to even suggest it.

    When the power differential between two contracting parties becomes significant enough, the empowered party can unilaterally create private law for the other party.

    Sorry, but this “power differential” thing is basically a marxist concept and about as enlightening as using words like “sustainable”.
    If you don’t like your job, go find another.

    This effectively makes their relationship more akin to that between a government and its subjects than that between negotiating individuals.

    Oh yea. It’s exactly the same, like an employer can jail me for disagreeing with him… stick me in a re-education camp… or even in Clive Hamilton’s world send the security forces after me because I disagree with the “professor of ethics”. I’m surprised you haven’t stuck the word “sustainable” or “fair” in there somewhere to get more street cred.

  9. desipis says:

    JC,

    there’s decent history behind it

    I’m not arguing against the point that history shows that governments can be those things. A closer reading of history will show that there are other forces that can also be those things. Look closely enough at modern history and you might enough realise that non-state entities have more a significant control over peoples lives than they have had in the past. We should be balancing our approach to these threats to freedom not focusing on one at the cost of ignoring the other(s).

    … the moment you stick a uniform of officialdom on humans their bullshit meter seems to shut down and willingly become obedient serfs …

    You realise that can easily apply to corporate uniforms (or other forms of officialdom) as well right? “It’s OK for you to do , we have approval from Corporate/EH&S/Legal!”

    Hamilton, at one stage came up with siccing the security services on climate sceptics.

    Well, at least it’d make a change from siccing them on the other side.

  10. JC says:

    Look closely enough at modern history and you might enough realise that non-state entities have more a significant control over peoples lives than they have had in the past.

    Really, like who?

    We should be balancing our approach to these threats to freedom not focusing on one at the cost of ignoring the other(s).

    Define your terms and explain eggsactly what you mean by “balance”.

    Well, at least it’d make a change from siccing them on the other side.

    First off, I’d be more than a little concerned about relying on anything that drama queen, Bob Brown says when he makes claims like this.

    Secondly he ought to be the last person to talk when he defines anyone not supporting his economic illiteracy as hate media and who shows a disturbing desire to go all “Huggy” Chavez on his opponents.

    Secondly your link suggests (towards the end) that a few of those people had form in attempting to destroy the assets or disrupt entities they disagreed with. Friends of the Earth people are known for terrorist like activities.

    Thirdly take it up with the Labor government as to why ASIO thinks these people are a threat.

    Perhaps a better solution would be to ask the judiciary to approve these sorts of investigations in secret as I too have a big problem with ASIO being able to conduct investigations without at least gaining some form of judicial sanction. IT would certainly be better than what we have now.

    ————
    Dan

    What if the employee has cultural of family reasons for wanting to stay in town?

    Then he should stay in town, Dan and either accept the job on those conditions or leave and find another elsewhere.

    Look, Don used the Aboriginal example in an isolated area to give his argument more emotional force. He seems unaware that around 30% of the country’s population are foreign born and those that arrived here in the 50’s and 60’s also had cultural differences and weren’t able to speak a word of English. However they moved across the world looking for work. For the most part these people succeeded here. Astoundingly so. Consequently, that example doesn’t hold much water.

    It amazes me how a lot of people that say they believe in evolution and Darwin’s theories only pay lip service to it and don’t seem to understand it. Humans are the most successful adoptable creatures on earth. Part of that adaptability thing also has to do with people moving from one place to another and making a go of it when there are differences in both the social and physical environment. They fit in, or try to. So I’m reasonably certain the mythical aboriginal Don brought up would do well in another town of city looking for work.

    • Dan says:

      Ah, I posted in the hope that you’d have something more thoughtful or interesting to say about a quite nuanced situation than ‘like it or lump it’. Oh well, thanks anyway.

      • Yobbo says:

        Are you 6 years old Dan? Most of life is a choice between liking it and lumping it.

        • Dan says:

          What most of us get to like or lump is, to be fair, pretty darn good. Not so in remote or socially disadvantaged areas.

  11. Pedro says:

    There is no ending the argument about the level of intervention in contracts, but if some people are sometimes desperate and correspondingly powerless then that is a fact of life that the govt cannot effectively remedy beyond the creation of a basic welfare system. And I mean basic in that it protects people on hard times or disabled, as compared to being a major intrusion into the life of the society.

    JC suggested earlier that Weyers might have wanted to save of health insurance. Now, does that make him horrible, or it is an inevitable outcome of the incentives the nanny state creates when there is a move to an insurance mandate?

    In a related sense, it is funny how often nanny state directives, like compulsory bike helmets are justified because the nanny state has provided health care.

  12. Mel says:

    It’s almost too depressing to comment on this site now because it has overrun by Catallaxy style libertarian trolls.

    JC, I seem to recall that when I banned you from my old website you kept turning up and posting abusive comments, thus infringing my property rights. You’ve also turned up at Harry Clarke’s site after being banned and you regularly turned up at Tim Lambert’s site (Deltoid) after being banned there under a string of pseudonyms including S Brid, Dave Curry, Pessimist etc etc etc. Like pretty well every libertarian I’ve ever met, your arguments about the sanctity of property rights only apply to others.

    Don, for the sake of your own sanity I suggest you enforce your property rights by sending libertarians off to Coventry :)

  13. JC says:

    Charming Mel. I guess you’re off your meds today. I think you’ve been making the exact same accusations since 2004/05 and each time you’re reminded that the reason you are no longer posting comments at Catallaxy is because of your deranged attacks on people accusing them of child molestation etc. Recall, you sick stunt. You’re not missed by the way.

    Frankly you really have to do better than that these days as it’s 2012, not 2004.

    Oh, yea ask to ban me is ironic coming from you.

    You know, what, Mel, piss off.

    • Yobbo says:

      Also, for repeatedly posting libellous comments like the one above.

      If you’ll recall Tim Blair has already successfully sued Crikey for accusing him of sock puppetry. Presumably Ken won’t want the same sort of comments on his blog.

      • Mel says:

        From Barry Brook at Brave New Climate:

        “Editors note: the response by ‘Jc’ to the last comment was deleted because it contained a physical threat: “Try that crap with me again and there’s going to be blood…”. Inappropriate attacks and threats will not be tolerated on this site. Any further posts by Jc or pseduonym’s will be removed. ”

        The web is littered with such nuggets.

        I rather doubt we’ll see JC chasing the skirt of a Boy Named Sue.

        • JC says:

          Mel

          Actually I don’t recall ever making such a threat. I don’t do threats.

          As a matter of fact I have a good relationship with Barry Brook. Go ask him, if you want.

          However I do recall you making a threats against numerous people at the Cat. In fact I even recall suggesting you’d even come to my home. “I’ll look you up and find you”. Remember. That wasn’t one of your best moments especially when you later told us you are a cripple. Seriously, it’s a steep hill around here. You’d be out of breath by the time you made it up in your wheel chair or stumps.

        • Tel says:

          You guys need to find a private room or something.

  14. Laura says:

    What’s more paternalistic that a standing army and squads of cops running amok at the behest of power and against the poor or democratic protesters?

    Of course libertarian (read neo-liberal anti-democrats) support the existence of a large military and police force. They are the biggest nanny staters of all. Hypocrites.

  15. Yobbo says:

    This is the quality of commentors that Club Troppo draws now? People who don’t even know the definitions of commonly-used words?

    It’s almost enough to make me miss Homer.

  16. jtfsoon says:

    What’s more paternalistic that a standing army and squads of cops running amok at the behest of power and against the poor or democratic protesters?

    So you trust the same government that, as you put it, might be ‘running amok at the best of power’ to decide which agreements made between individuals should or shouldn’t be enforceable on some fuzzy grounds of protecting them against themselves?

    Note that *at the extremes* there is already sufficient provision under the law as it stands for certain contracts to be declared non-enforceable where one of the contracting parties is mentally vulnerable, of diminished faculties, etc. And in addition there already is a welfare system in place so that even the incentives of ‘take it or leave it’ are already to some extent rebalanced towards the economically vulnerable. In light of these, those who want the same government they don’t trust to run police and military to micromanage contracts where both parties are of sound mind have a lot of onus on them

    • desipis says:

      Surely you can see there’s a principled that can be against government action when its suppressing democratic expression and be for government action when its enforcing democratic decisions.

      You seem to be framing your response with the false dichotomy of either trusting government completely or not at all. It’s quite possible to be critical of government with the aim of improving it rather than concluding its a bad idea.

    • Pedro says:

      It’s not a false dichotomy in the way you’ve suggested. People who worry about govt abuses of power can and should have the same concern about govt failures and unintended consequences when trying to do good. The reason main reason to limit govt is that it is worthy of distrust. And you don’t need to worry about motives, just the normal human problems of poorly aligned incentives and limited ability to do complex things well.

      There is a separate ethical point about whether it is fair and proper for the govt to try and equalise outcomes and opportunities through the redistribution of power and treasure. As a libertarianish person I don’t think it’s fair, but I do think there are pragmatic reasons to do it. A lot of what we call unfair is better characterised as misfortune.

      • desipis says:

        I’m not arguing that there shouldn’t be concern. I’m arguing that being concerned about abuses or failures by government is a very different thing from assuming government trying to do something will always fail or abuse their power in a way that’s more harmful than not trying in the first place. There’s a middle ground between ‘government is always good’ and ‘government is always bad’.

        The reason main reason to limit govt is that it is worthy of distrust. And you don’t need to worry about motives, just the normal human problems of poorly aligned incentives and limited ability to do complex things well.

        Those same criticisms also apply to any human organisation. There’s plenty of evidence to justify why ‘the market’ or ‘private enterprise’ is worthy of distrust too.

        There is a separate ethical point about whether it is fair and proper for the govt to try and equalise outcomes and opportunities through the redistribution of power and treasure.

        There are plenty of ethical issues with contracts, property rights and the market.

        A lot of what we call unfair is better characterised as misfortune.

        If we just characterise government failures as ‘misfortune’, does that make them any more acceptable?

      • Pedro says:

        I don’t think we are massively disagreeing, bearing in mind that the original post was about whether libertarians have inconsisent values. I’m only saying that there is a category level difference between govt power and the power of private actors and that is why libertarians are not inconsistent.
        A lack of faith in govt is not faith in private actors.

  17. JB Cairns says:

    I am afraid Mr Soon is correct Don,

    This is not one of your better efforts for the reasons he has outlined..

  18. Mel says:

    Libertarians chose to ignore the fact that private property is in itself a product of Nanny. Outside of Nanny’s laws, there is no such thing as private property. And what happens when someone infringes on another’s property rights? That’s right, Nanny’s taxpayer funded police and courts remedy the infringement.

    • Pedro says:

      Well you’ve got Eddie Mabo rolling over in his grave Mel, and it beats me why you think private property was not recognised before the development of governments.

      • Mel says:

        If private property was “recognised” then government must have existed. Even the most primitive hunter-gatherer society has a rudimentary system of government.

      • desipis says:

        It beats me why you think a conceptualisation of private property came before social enforcement of general community standards of behaviour.

      • Pedro says:

        Because I think somebody probably yelled “hey that’s mine” pretty early on in the piece. But if you want to define property as depending on centralised sanction then it’s not possible to have a discussion on the issue cause you’ve defined away the argument.

    • Tel says:

      So the flint and amber trade of 10000 BC didn’t exist because the EU hadn’t been invented yet?

      The tin and copper trade that ran all the way from the palace of the Minotaur to the mad, bad Celtic tribes never happened?

      Salt? Spice? Silk? Gold? Silver? Bronze? Long list of non-events really.

      Come to think of it, I’m surprised that we have world trade at all right now, must all be run by a secret UN department. Come to think of it, how can we have drug dealers? Is there yet another secret UN department managing that? Perhaps the CIA was given that job.

    • Peter Patton says:

      Mel

      Libertarians chose to ignore the fact that private property is in itself a product of Nanny. Outside of Nanny’s laws, there is no such thing as private property.

      What ignorant guff. In fact, government arose from the fact of private property. Government arose as a means of defending and arbitrating private property claims. Without private property, there is no democracy.

  19. JB Cairns says:

    Mel,

    sorry but you are wrong.
    Pedro probably comments more here than Catallaxy and it shows in his comments.
    That merely leaves Yobbo and JC.

    if two people gets you so offside you need a new life

  20. Tel says:

    My feeling on Weyco is that there’s no problem with new employees agreeing to some behavioural conduct provided it is clearly explained to them upfront. With respect to existing employees, they might have put considerable investment into the company in terms of moving cities, learning skills, putting aside other opportunities so I’d say there is grounds for existing employees who were inconvenienced by what is largely an arbitrary contractual variation to be able to claim compensation on a breach of contract basis. Exactly how much compensation is a bit arguable — they would have to show they made some commitment to the company which has been nullified by changing the rules.

    I also feel that if customers decided not to buy Weyco’s services because their way of doing business isn’t agreeable then that would also be legit. I certainly wouldn’t have anything to do with a company that carries on in such a manner.

    As the only private sector employer in a remote Indigenous community, they might choose to pay their workers using a Basics Card that can only be used at a company store.

    The answer is obvious… people who don’t like the idea of a Basics Card should get together and form some sort of group that runs its transactions differently, thus creating competition in the industry. Gold or bitcoin might be suggestions. If no such people exist then Basics Card must be acceptable.

    I’m presuming that some government regulation doesn’t create a massive barrier to entry and thus prevent competition (quite often the case) or that all alternative forms of payment have not been made illegal. That’s not really a problem with Libertarian political philosophy so I’ll leave it for the central planners to wrangle with those issues (if they might happen to exist in this hypothetical world).

    So it turns out libertarians don’t have a principled objection to nannying. In some cases, they’re all for it.

    The distinction being whether it is a voluntary exchange, with the ability to opt-out, or whether people are forced into it. All government edicts are ultimately backed by force, and some private edicts are also backed by force. Needless to say, there’s no sharp edge where the use of force suddenly becomes apparent, but while ever government claims a monopoly on the use of force (which invariably it does claim) I’d say they must also accept responsibility for such. Seems fair hmmm?

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