Friday, February 08, 2008

I uneasily believe in limited government.

So I was talking to my girlfriend (let's call her "G") about all kinds of interesting things, and somehow she got to talking about her confidence in the idea that government should cap the level of salt in restaurant food, since it causes so many people obesity and heart problems, driving up healthcare costs. In short, if I believe the government ought to maximize utility, as I seem to believe, I should be in favor of this.

So is my preference for freedom in this case just an aesthetic taste? My strongest response was the society portrayed in (the shitty Wesley Snipes movie) “Demolition Man,” where the only restaurant is Taco Bell and salt is completely banned. The logic of decreasing healthcare costs would seem to lead us to that conclusion.

G responded that a Demolition Man-esque salt ban does not strike the utility maximizing balance.

My rejoinder was this: people disagree on what the utility maximizing balance is. The Center for Science in the Public Interest probably advocates a much healthier, less tasty diet than the average American prefers, and CSPI folks are precisely the type of people who like to pass government legislation telling people what the utility-maximizing balance is. Even if G believes she can decide what the utility maximizing policy looks like, she cannot expect that such a policy will be implemented. Given the messy realities of democratic politics, it may even be best for her to refrain from advocating the legislation she prefers, because it will take society down a path that she doesn’t like.

Yet she continues to advocate it.

On an even deeper level, there are people who prefer the current, overly salty food being served, as evidenced by the fact that they consume it by the bucket. Yet G would argue that there are incentives in place (artificially low prices, thanks to corn subsidies) that lead them to make a suboptimal decision.

I guess it just comes down to what extent you value people’s revealed preferences, and to what extent you believe that government can calculate a utility-maximizing level that contradicts what people claim to prefer.

Liberals tend to have faith that government can do that. Conservatives tend to believe that government can’t, and point to historical example upon historical example to show what happens when you put too much trust in government.

In the end, it is tempting to believe that government can do these things well. But perhaps a humbler, less optimistic role for government is the best we can have.