If public goods exist, the prime instance must be the fight against real epidemics—epidemics of infectious diseases—and the fight against antibiotic resistance. Recall that the economic definition of a “public good” is a good (or service) that everybody wants, is non-rival in consumption (all consumers can consume it simultaneously), and from which consumers cannot be excluded. The usefulness of government in providing (or financing) public goods does not imply that it should be given carte blanche to trample on individual choices and individual liberty.
Regarding epidemics, compulsory vaccination may be less effective than the authoritarian mind imagines, as a recent article in The Economist suggests (“The Campaign Against Vaccination,” January 19, 2019). Compulsory vaccination raises systemic issues about individual liberty. It provokes resistance that might actually lead to lower levels of vaccination. As for the anti-vaxxers’ campaigns, they represent a dangerous populist retreat from reason. Being suspicious of authority is good, but it does not imply rejecting modern science—provided the primacy of individual choices is admitted.
The rise of antibiotic resistance is another impending, and perhaps worse, problem. Because of antibiotic overuse, antibiotic resistance kills at least 700,000 people each year in the world (see Brianna Abbott, “Superbug from India Spread Far and Fast, Study Finds,” Wall Street Journal, January 7, 2019).
In the meantime, the public-health movement is fighting menthol-flavored cigarettes (the other flavors have already been banned) and flavors in e-cigarettes. The New York City council, which wants to beet the U.S. government at the forefront of the new puritanism, is scheduled to adopt legislation against menthol cigarettes and all flavored e-cigarettes. The FDA, with an activist Commissioner appointed by Donald Trump, is trying to do the same nationally.
If the public-health movement had not wasted its intellectual and credibility capital as well as the taxpayers’ money in campaigns against lifestyle “epidemics” (tobacco, fat, sugar, and now, of all things, vaping!), if it had not ignored the difference between scientific results and individual choices, it would be better position to confront the two problems of real epidemics and antibiotic resistance.
On the public-health movement, see my Regulation article “The Danger of Public Health.” For the totalitarian roots of the war on smoking, see my Independent Review essay “Heil Health,” reviewing Robert Proctor’s The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton University Press, 1999).
Defending New York City’s proposed flavor ban for “tobacco products” (which have now been defined to include e-cigarettes), councilman Mark Levine said:
We must protect kids form the allure of all those candyish flavors.
What about protecting kids as well as their infantilized parents from tyrants-to-be with government’s candyish flavors?