Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why skeptics should consider libertarianism

The skeptical community is roughly 70 percent progressive and 30 percent libertarian, at least according to an informal poll at TAM 7. While that's nowhere close to a majority, it's two to three times larger than the American public at large and I think it should be higher.

Last week it came out that the European Union prevented a bottled water company from putting a statement on their product that said water helps prevent dehydration. Their academic panel spent three long years on the case and declared that since pure water isn't the only way to prevent dehydration, the claim is misleading and can not be printed.

Dr. Steven Novella, arguably the most prominent skeptic in New England, verified the story and wrote yesterday:

My fear is that this sensational event will create a public backlash against regulatory agencies reviewing health claims by product manufacturers. This is a dramatic and emotional case that can have undue influence on what should be a thoughtful and nuanced discussion about the proper role of regulation in health claims. I suspect the anti-regulation crowd will jump all over it.
Well, here I am. It's not that I'm against all regulation, I just want less of it. I even support regulation to stop fraudulent claims on products, which is exactly what this case was supposed to be about.

But unlike my friends and fellow skeptics on the left, I know the regulations tend to end up grotesque and flawed. I want fewer regulations because there is no reason to expect the regulations will be based on the best knowledge available and with the public interest in mind.

As Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom:
"...We all think that our personal order of values is not merely personal but that in a free discussion among rational people we would convince the others that ours is the right one."
Progressive skeptics assume they will be the ones who write the regulations simply because the science is on their side. Granted, it usually is, but that's a naive way to look at the political process.

Remember corn-based ethanol? The government funneled taxpayer money to big corn producers to convert their food product into fuel. We quickly learned that the fuel is inferior and harms engines, there is no net energy gain from all the fossil fuels we put into ethanol and the corn shortage caused mass starvation in other countries. Corn-based ethanol is a bad idea and the public turned against it, yet the subsidies remain.

And why wouldn't they? The corn industry has a lot of money to spend protecting these subsidies, where the public's benefit is spread among many people. It's the old political game of dispersed costs and concentrated benefits.

I'd love to ban homeopathic products for claiming they can heal people, but fighting that battle is a waste of my time. I gain very little waging that war, where the sham medicine companies have a lot to lose and will spend a lot of money protecting their business interests. That's why I concentrate my efforts on convincing potential consumers.

Skeptics assume that merely being right will guarantee victory in a political system run by people. Yet skeptics understand that most people aren't relentless critical thinkers and will believe myths and fables, including the people likely to be elected. There is no reason to believe the people they appoint to a position will be the brightest, most competent, or share the same love of science.

Look at Orac's ongoing posts about defunding the NCCAM, the federal governments alt medicine $121 million annual laboratory. I've written about defunding it too, but I know that's not going to happen with our government.

When lefties talk about regulation, it's in a state of perfection. They assume the regulators will have perfect knowledge and constantly update the regulations to the latest scientific understanding. They forget about unintended consequences, such as forming a board to stop soda companies from saying their product cures cancer only to have that same board declare that water doesn't prevent dehydration.

Free market philosopher Milton Friedman saw government interference like regulation as coercion and said:
“I have no right to coerce someone else because I cannot be sure that I am right and he is wrong.”
Skepticism is a process of discovery, it is not a set of positions one takes. With a hands-off approach to government, I would have better control over how much of my money goes to chiropractors or homeopaths. Under current federal regulation, all health insurance policies must offer chiropractic options. Our private actions also respond faster to new information than it takes to write new government policies.

The comparison should not be between no regulation and perfect regulation, but a different society that adjusts to having fewer regulations and a world with many imperfect regulations that solve some problems and cause new ones. While I don't expect all skeptics to switch camps, I'd like them to consider being more libertarian in their approach.


  1. I think I speak for the group when I say I support ethanol...

    In beverage form.

  2. Your mother enjoys imbibing a bit of that when I visit her. Next time we'll leave some methanol out for you.

  3. Thanks! I don't like seeing anyways.