As the holidays approach, I have a chance to catch up on reading. The Sept-Oct issue of the Hastings Center Report had a paper by Larry Gostin on Michael Bloomberg’s health policy career in New York, and I have seen some of a series of responses by other scholars that will appear in due course. With his usual facility, Gostin recounts the story of Bloomberg’s health department and its innovations in policy – it’s a great piece for a health law class. The piece is also typical Gostin in its framing of the issue of paternalism as a key driver of opposition to many of Bloomberg’s initiatives. And if it is typical Gostin, it is really representative of our field, since Gostin has both drawn on and helped reinforce a widely held belief that the politics of public health are strongly driven by a tension between individual liberty (inscribed legally in civil rights and culturally in individualism and antipaternalism) and public health.
In this framework, paternalism is a premise, not a hypothesis. Gostin writes, “The societal discomfort with Bloomberg’s agenda is grounded, at its core, in distrust of government influence on how autonomous adults conduct their lives.” He describes how health policy-makers are driven to rely on the harm principle to justify policies by “American antipathy toward paternalism.” Yet, and this is also typical of the discourse in our field, he also follows the Sunstein-Thaler line that ultimately denies the empirical assumptions upon which anti-paternalist claims depend: “The public health approach rejects the idea that there is such a thing as unfettered free will, recognizing instead that the built environment, social networks, marketing, and a range of situational cues drive complex behaviors.”
Public health law has been stuck here for a while, accepting that public health policy has and always will be subject to the arbitrary dominion of a mass delusion of autonomy. I think this log-jam is starting to break – and that proponents of effective health laws should be doing all they can to properly discredit and abandon this old trope. A few signs: