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Your Money or Your Life

December 15th, 2006 · 5 Comments

One thing the left and right appear to agree on, but which seems sorely lacking in good supporting arguments, is that there’s something deeply wrong with people making tradeoffs between health or longevity and money. For instance, I posed a hypothetical to a smoking-ban supporter earlier this week: Suppose we had “smoking variances” that bars could purchase for their liquor licenses, maybe limited to 15 or 20 or 30 percent of the total number of liquor licenses issued—pick the number you like. That should eliminate the worry that professional bartenders “don’t really have a choice” about what kind of environment to work in, so would that be OK? The answer was that it wouldn’t, because that 15 or 20 percent would have to pay significantly higher wages to attract workers—at least, this will happen if you buy the theory that many bar workers just hate the smoke but are subjects of economic coercion under the status quo—and “nobody should have to choose” between their health and an extra buck or two an hour. “Nobody should have to” here meaning, of course, “nobody should ever be allowed to.” (This is, by the way, one of the slipperiest locutions out there today: Any time you have an option you “have to” either take it or not take it. To have more options is to be “forced” (by the law of the excluded middle) to choose between them: Logically speaking, you “must” either accept any offer or fail to accept it. So having choices becomes a species of coercion, and removing them a kind of liberation! Orwell would be proud.)

On the right, one of the big bugaboos about assisted suicide is the prospect of people allowing financial considerations to enter into decisions about the end of life. If someone’s not expected to live more than a month or two, and their care is costing thousands daily, might they decide it’s better to shuffle off earlier and leave that extra money to their kids and grandkids? Well, they surely might. But… so what? Why is this tradeoff, as opposed to any of the innumerable others we might make, intrinsically offensive?

Partly, as I suggested the other day, I think it’s our misguided tendency to regard health as a scientifically quantifiable and, therefore, somehow uniquely “objective” value. But I think it’s also partly that we end up conflating intuitions about distributive justice with the intrinsic coerciveness of the choice situation. That is, if we contemplate someone’s being prepared to seriously jeopardize their health for what seems like not much money, it throws into relief how badly off they must be, since health really is sufficiently widely and strongly valued that it makes a good comparison point. But, of course, what’s bad or unjust is their having so few resources that they regard that tradeoff as a net gain. The added option doesn’t make matters worse, it just highlights an already existing circumstance—whether “unjust” or merely unfortunate—that it might otherwise be easier to ignore.

Tags: Nannyism



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Matt F // Dec 15, 2006 at 8:24 pm

    “Nobody should have to” here meaning, of course, “nobody should ever be allowed to.”

    It’s more that people shouldn’t have to choose one over the other, because they ought to have both. The problem isn’t that they have a choice, it’s that they are forced by circumstance to sacrifice one of the things (either money or health) in pursuit of the other.

    The underlying point is one about the disadvantaged situations that put people in these positions. Of course, if nothing is concurrently being done to alleviate the disadvantage, then the sentiment rings quite hollow.

  • 2 Gil // Dec 16, 2006 at 3:38 pm


    I think it’s worse than you suggest.

    Think about boycotting products made in foreign countries offering low wages and poor conditions.

    It’s not just that they think it’s too bad that people are so deprived that they might make the mistake that thinking such jobs are in their interest. Even if taking the job is clearly in their interest (i.e. better than available alternatives), these advocates would like to deny them the option.

    Somehow they can feel good about denying the option, and can completely ignore the consequences, or at least they can fail to find the fact that the consequences are negative to be relevant.

  • 3 Javier // Dec 17, 2006 at 6:28 pm

    One thing the left and right appear to agree on, but which seems sorely lacking in good supporting arguments, is that there’s something deeply wrong with people making tradeoffs between health or longevity and money.

    As a side note, I would recommend an excellent Robin Hanson paper on the topic.

  • 4 Matthew // Dec 19, 2006 at 1:07 pm

    There is a major element of the anti-smoking movement you didn’t address that makes comparing it to right-to-die issue a problem.

    Its not just an issue of worker safety, or that people can destroy their own bodies if they want to. Its that the health costs of treating smoking-induced illness such as cancer are passed on to the public in the form of healthcare-related taxes and higher insurance costs. I cannot site any figure off hand, but I believe the collective cost to healthy non-smokers for caring for sick smokers is in the billions.

    And this does not factor in the personal (financial) costs to family members, especially the children of smokers. A parent who gets cancer from smoking is potentially saddling their children with a crippling and insurmountable mountain of debt. There is no positive trade off (unless your mom or dad is just awful and derserves to die) like you sited for suicide.

    Whether the latter issue is enough to criminalize smoking or not, I don’t know. That seems too much like the state taking on parenting responsibilities. But the former, to me, is sufficient. Your personal liberties do not extend to harming other people for no reason, and smoking harms other people, with no benefit to the smoker.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Dec 19, 2006 at 4:34 pm

    The comment above is wrong on basically every count. Smokers cost the public less, because the ailments smoking causes tend to kill you fairly quickly. Even if it were true, of course, this is a truly perverse argument. The state decides it will take responsibility for the harm people do to themselves; therefore, people lose their rights over their own bodies. Shall we have fun with analogies? The public pays in various ways for children; therefore your reproductive choices “inflict harm” on others. The state may decide when and under what conditions you’re fit to bear children. Sexually transmitted diseases are paid for by the public as well. The state is entitled to police your sexual behavior to ensure that you don’t “inflict” this harm on others. As I said a couple posts ago, you can’t use public “generosity” as an excuse to deprive people of their rights because you decided to make their private actions affect the public treasury.

    And of course smoking has benefits: People like to smoke. That this seems unreasonable to you makes it no less of a benefit.