02 February 2012

Ban everything which is not a Pareto improvement?

Earlier I commented on an exchange between Jacob Grier and Bill Gardner. Since then something else that Gardner said has been rubbing me the wrong way.
Something not unlike research | Bill Gardner | In which I am chastised for arrogance

But what about liberty? I am not arguing that government should ban bone lugers from employment. My point is that I do not see a compelling argument against employers choosing not to hire them. By extension, we should have no public policies protecting access to employment for smokers (or bone lugers). This is, I believe, consistent with Mill's view that
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.
Honestly, I would be satisfied if power was only exercised to prevent harm to others. It's certainly a step forward from the society we have now, where power is so routinely exercised to protect people from themselves.

My problem is that in basing the entire decision on whether harm is done Mill and Gardner entirely abdicate even attempting to balance costs and benefits. If the only criterion necessary to ban an action is that someone, somewhere, believes themselves to be harmed then we are all at the mercy of the person most willing to claim injury. (And frankly, I don't like that person very much.) We also lose the ability to take actions that are of great benefit to many, and mild nuisance to some, as well as the ability to decide to mitigate bad outcomes rather than banning them entirely.

There is also the problem of determining the frame of reference. On the one hand, we can ban smoking in cigar shops because it will cause some harm to people who (voluntarily) work there or (voluntarily) patronize the shop. To hell with the good some people derive from the shop, because that shop is causing harm to some people!

On the other hand, such a rule will harm the business owner and patrons of the shop. So let's use our power to stop people from enacting bans on cigar shops. To hell with the good that some people will derive from the ban on cigar shops, because those bans are causing harm to some people!

We see this frame of reference problem in trade policy all the time. I've heard from the White House that we need to slap tariffs on imported tires because they are harming American tire makers. But on the other side of the ledger the tariff is harming American tire consumers. (Not to mention foreign tire makers, who I'd like to think have at least some moral standing.)


  1. What, pray tell, is a "bone luger"?

  2. If I'm not mistaken, it's something Grier, a bartender, invented where a drink is mixed and then poured down a hollowed out bone into your mouth. I'm not sure if it has marrow still in it, and the drink picks up some flavor from that or if it's purely a delivery device. Apparently it's becoming a mini-trend.