This Week’s Mtg: Regulation Vs. Personal Responsibility

Jim W. asked, “To what extent should government protect people from themselves;” that is, through regulation of dangerous or destructive behaviors?  On May 3 we’re reprising our power outage-cancelled meeting on legalizing drugs, prostitution, and gambling.  So, how can we separate these two discussions?

Maybe this week we could focus more on general principles of when the government should intervene to save people from themselves.  The textbook, Public Policy 101 answer is, “when bad behaviors significantly harm other people and those people lack a practical recourse to stop you from hurting them or get compensation.”   Examples: second-hand smoking, financial sector regulation, and yeah, drug use.  (When you use drugs you help prop up drug markets that hurt other folks, even if not you.)

But, we all know it’s not that simple, especially in practice.  For one thing, I got a $300 ticket the other day for driving without my seatbelt.  For another, many conservatives want to dismantle the whole edifice of health, safety, and environmental regulations that have stood for over 40 years.  Other conservatives want to expand the nanny state, as long as it bans the things that do harm they care about, like abortion and street crimes.  Some liberals want to get in on the act, too.  They either want to make existing regulations more incentive-based (I’ll explain), or expand it to protect the public from new dangers, like obesity and climate change.

So, maybe this is a good time to review some of the basic principles of when regulation is and is not justified.  I’ll open by doing that and then open it up to general comments and then specific areas of regulation, like obesity, smoking, financial regulation, or whatever we want.  The first one I’ll toss out is the biggest regulatory issue on the front burner right now: The individual mandate to buy health insurance contained in the new health care law.  Yeah, yeah.  Republicans were all for it before Obama was for it, but now they’re all bitterly opposed and the issue is about to be reviewed by the Supreme Court.  Oral arguments will be in March and we will devote an evening to the Supreme Court on March 22.

(By the way, “personal responsibility” is highly loaded language in another context:  The almost universal [edit] commonly-held opinion among conservatives that the poor are poor mainly through their own fault and that their real problem is lack of personal virtue, not structural barriers to success.  We can get into this if you want, but Jim told me it wasn’t his primary intent to discuss this, plus it’s a whole other topic.)


  1. What is the justification for government regulation of “bad” behaviors?  Is there any justification for doing so if the behaviors harm only the person doing it?  What about the justification of policing public morality?  Of protecting children?
  2. Should it depend on who’s getting harmed, and how much they are harmed?
  3. Who in society should be deciding these things?  Elected officials?  State officials? Local communities?  Individuals only?
  4. Is the health insurance mandate justified?  Why/not?
  5. What about trying to regulate away obesity?
  6. Are any areas overregulated?
  7. What if what the public wants is not what’s in the public interest; e.g., they don’t want carbon pricing or fat taxes?  Who decides then? 



See you there.


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