Crampton on Health doomsayers

A great column in the Herald by Eric Crampton:

Sometime soon, we’ll see a report showing that the social costs of skiing are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It wouldn’t be hard to produce a number that large. First, show frequent skiers are more likely to have accidents than recreational skiers.

Then, make the critical assumption that nobody could ever rationally decide to take risks – health is all that matters. Frequent skiers then are by definition irrational, and irrational people enjoy no benefits from their ski outings, no matter how happy they appear.

With this “zero benefits” assumption, every dollar spent on skiing by these harmful skiers is a social cost, as is the time these folks spend skiing. Add the realised costs from those folks who do have skiing accidents and you’d quickly have a number in the hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions.

Such a good analogy.

Any time we make a decision that lets us enjoy a bit of fun but with some risk to our health, that decision is considered irrational and cannot generate any real enjoyment.

Consequently, benefits are either assumed equal to zero or set to an arbitrarily low level.

But is it really irrational to trade off health against other goals? I have a hard time imagining somebody for whom health isn’t a good.

But I similarly cannot imagine anybody for whom health is the only good. We all trade off risks to our health against other goals we seek, all the time.

If you saved a few dollars by not buying the most expensive baby car seat on the market, you decided that the very small extra increase in safety for your child isn’t worth the money.

If health and safety were our only goal, the world would look very different. We would all buy cars made of padded foam rubber and drive very slowly. That we don’t is strong evidence that we have pluralistic sets of values – we are not monomaniacal healthists in our daily lives.

Absolutely. You want a zero road toll. Set the speed limit to 30 km/hr.

If we tally up the social costs of driving with a cellphone, we ought to recognise that accident costs need to be weighed up against all of the benefits that drivers enjoy from being able to take the occasional call while on the road – we oughtn’t have our thumb on the scales by assuming the benefits away.

And this is why I am critical of the Government for their moves here. Nowhere have I seen measurement of the benefits vs the costs of cellphone use in cars.

For every skier who dies in an avalanche, tens of thousands of others took no fewer risks but enjoyed a great time out on the slopes. Their enjoyment ought to count for something.

And, for every drinker who dies in an accident that could have been avoided were he sober, there are countless others who simply enjoyed a good night out.

Yes. And forcing bars to close early (for example) will stop many having a good night out.

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