Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics and Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs
Christopher Snowdon is an independent writer and researcher. He is the author of The Art of Suppression (2011), The Spirit Level Delusion (2010) and Velvet Glove, Iron Fist (2009). His work focuses on pleasure, prohibition and dodgy statistics. His blog is Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. He became a Research Fellow at the IEA in January 2012.
The IEA’s Lifestyle Economics programme focuses on the regulation of controversial products and activities. In this short essay Christopher Snowdon explains what it is and why it matters.
If market liberals stand idly by as the state sets prices, restricts commercial speech and demonises industries (and their customers), they will stand for anything. Under the pretext of ‘public health’, basic levers of competition—price, content and marketing—are increasingly falling under state control. With the advent of minimum pricing and plain packaging, the possibility of the government dictating how much a product sells for and what it looks like has become very real.
These developments are of no little concern to free marketers and social liberals. We are told, for example, that the obesity “epidemic” requires us to accept “a more invasive role for government.” The European Union openly discusses the need for “lifestyle regulation”. When New York mayor Michael Bloomberg decided that it should be against the law to sell a pint of Coca-Cola, a professor of medicine declared that: “The trivial issues of personal freedom in this case pale before the public health and welfare exigency.” Although it is predicted that one in three children born today will live to the age of 100, we are told that our health is at risk like never before from “non-communicable diseases” caused by our lifestyles. In the face of this “crisis”, we are expected to sacrifice liberty as if we were on a war-time footing.
Some would argue that the liberties under threat are of a minor nature, or are only of concern to the industries involved. But it is not the businessman who suffers most when prices rise and choice is restricted—he may find ways of profiting from both—but the consumer. And whilst it is inevitable that when authorities infringe on liberty, they begin with products and activities which are controversial or obscure, liberals recognise that there is an important issue of principle at stake that goes far beyond the unpopular and perhaps unsavoury test case. It therefore falls to liberals to defend “trivial issues of personal freedom”. If they do so, the bigger issues of personal freedom often take care of themselves.
This is not merely a philosophical position. The hazards and failures of state paternalism can be shown empirically, and the Lifestyle Economics workstream will put hard evidence at the heart of all its publications. Even if we accept that policy should be viewed through the narrow lens of ‘public health’, many of the interventions recommended do not work on their own terms. Every man-made law must overcome the law of unintended consequences and the law of demand. Time and time again, we see well-intentioned but ill-considered policies backfire by fuelling the black market, exacerbating poverty and encouraging more harmful consumption.
Adam Smith said that he had “never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good”. The same might be said today of those who purport to act in the public interest today, whether they be self-appointed protectors of ‘public morality’ or those who work in that nebulous and ever expanding industry of ‘public health’ which today provides the mandate for almost limitless state interference in what we eat, whether we smoke, how much we exercise, how much television we watch, how many items of fruit and veg we eat, how many units of alcohol we drink, whether a price is too low or too high, if a packet of crisps is too large or a pack of cigarettes too colourful, or a pint glass too tall.
Free market liberals have warned of the dangers of ‘slippery slope’ regulation for many years. They argued that the treatment being meted out to smokers would one day be dished out to consumers of any product which carries a risk to health or morals, however small. “Should the State dictate how many sausage butties I have for breakfast?” one prominent doctor asked rhetorically in the Times. “Should the Health Minister be e-mailing me about my five-a-day broccoli and bananas?” His answer? “Yes and yes.” “If the advertising of tobacco can be banned because smoking harms the individual,” wrote another public health professional, “should not all advertising be much more circumscribed because the consumption it engenders harms the planet?” With fizzy drinks, ‘junk food’, alcohol, meat, cars and sugar now being lined up as “the new tobacco” we start this programme from halfway down that slippery slope. All but the most pious abstainers from vice now find themselves in the cross-hairs of some single-issue pressure group or other.
When the writer George Ade reflected on how prohibition had conquered America in the 1920s, he recalled that “the non-drinkers had been organising for fifty years and the drinkers had no organization whatsoever. They had been too busy drinking.” Ordinary consumers are often too busy to defend their lifestyles against well-organised special interest groups. Businesses often spend too much time protecting their narrow interests in the short term and fail to see the bigger picture. The Lifestyle Economics workstream aims to show that bigger picture and to reaffirm that the interests of consumers are best advanced by the provision of accurate information, low prices and a wide range of choices in a competitive marketplace.