Of Games and Gardens

Barton Hinkle has an interesting piece in today’s RTD comparing the top-down, bird’s eye view of the world offered by Sim City-style computer games with the more humble view of the world associated with what he calls the “respectful gardener.”

Hinkle has a couple of good points here. First, it’s undeniably true that many in the public policy world do tend towards a bird’s eye view of things, and have inclination towards wishing to implement rational plans that will create a public good. You can count me (for one) guilty as charged (and yes, I’m a big fan of Sim City and similar games–though not an uncritical one. See this piece I wrote in 2001, which offers some criticisms of the genre.)

Second, it’s also true that having only a bird’s eye view of the world can lead to hubris and a disregard of individuals, by seeing people as pieces to be manipulated rather than free creatures with minds of their own.

That said, I don’t think the gamer-gardener metaphor necessarily leads to the policy conclusions Hinkle implies in the couple of examples he gives. The first example is that of public health laws to ban trans fats in restaurant food; the second example is legislation to ban smoking in bars and restaurants.

Let’s take the second case first. Hinkle says a respectful gardener will not try to tell others what to do in their own gardens. Fair enough. But public smoking legislation isn’t telling anyone what to do in their own gardens or private spaces. You can still smoke in your own garden, and you can invite friends over to your house and let them smoke. The legislation only comes into effect if you announce yourself as a business open to the public. Once you make that decision, you no longer are operating a purely private space; rather you are operating a space that the public has the right and responsibility to regulate so as to prevent public harms. We don’t allow public businesses to defraud customers or to practice racial discrimination, for instance.

So in this case, a policy of allowing smoking in public restaurants is essentially a policy to give some people the freedom to dump their smoke upon and increase the cancer risk of others. Replying that those who don’t want to go into smoky bars and restaurants don’t have to do so is not a reasonable response, because it places additional burdens (the cost of finding a place you can safely go, or the cost of not going out at all when you’d really like to because you know there will be smoke everywhere) on persons who haven’t done anything wrong, not upon the smokers who are creating externalities for third parties. In short, this is a case where competing liberties collide: the liberty of smokers to impose costs on others in public spaces vs. the liberty of non-smokers to enter any public location of their choosing confident that they will not be increasing their own cancer risk.

Let’s turn to the trans fat case. Here Hinkle is implicitly critiquing a form of paternalism in which the state says it know what’s best for people, and hence overrides their preferences.

But classical utilitarian philosophers, from John Stuart Mill in the 19th century to figures like Robert Goodin today, have long acknowledged, even in arguing for as much personal liberty as possible, that there are certain cases in which the government is justified in shaping individual behavior. One set of cases in when people are not fully informed about their actual choices, and hence unwittingly make choices in ways which undermine their own interests.

A second set of cases involves people having “preferences for preferences.” In these cases, individuals have both higher-order preferences (i.e. the desire to live a healthy lifestyle) and lower-order preferences (cravings for high-fat ice cream), which on occasion conflict with one another. Public policy which helps individuals act in ways which are consistent with their higher-order preferences then may actually enable individual freedom rather than hinder it; such policies might allow individuals to better be who they really (on reflection) want to be and to overcome internal temptations.

The trans fats example seems to fit both of these provisos. One could reasonably argue that consumers are not aware of what’s really in their food, and are unlikely to have the capacity to find out what’s in it. Because it’s reasonable to assume that everyone has a large interest in their own health, and that no one wants to jeopardize their own health without at least being aware of the risks they are taking, public policy which bans certain kinds of ingredients with no health value from use in public businesses (as opposed to what you choose to make for your family at home) can be justified; it’s simply a case of restraining one form of liberty (liberty to buy really fatty foods at a restaurant) in order to promote another (ability to eat restaurant food without unknowingly endangering one’s own health).

Again, in this case the distinction between private and public space is critical. Let’s agree with Hinkle that no one has a right (barring exceptional circumstances) to tell someone else what to do in their own home. But laws which ban trans fats from restaurant foods don’t affect what you choose to eat in your own home or how you choose to prepare the food. Rather, they regulate public transactions, recognizing that in the public world (as opposed to one’s garden) competing liberties often collide with one another.

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Published in: on February 2, 2007 at 8:47 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I am all for respecting private space, but one problem with “the respectful gardner” model is that in today’s American society, the ‘gardner’, whether it be a lonely citizen (in particular, the retiring Baby Boomers) or a giant corporation, often does not live to his responsibilty to greater society. These days, ‘gardners’ are not only retiring behind their walls and not bothering to help educate, in worse cases they are deliberaely leaving misleading instructions on their walls for others to read.

    I am thinking in particular of the modern American health care and big pharma.

    One of the few liberal ideas that I do embrace is a single payer, universal, national health care system (you can’t really call it a radical idea since most of the industrialized world believes in it). One of the components of national health care that conservatives are first to discount is public education and preventative health care.

  2. Almost 2 weeks since the last post. What’s going on? I miss your posts…

  3. Just a work crunch, that’s all. I’ll try to post this weekend at some point. Thanks for the prod…


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