Government sanction is not a defense

I thought about writing something about the execution of Saddam Hussein, but decided against it because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say beyond the obvious. Saddam’s despicability doesn’t change my opposition to capital punishment. My reasons are based on my beliefs about government as much as they are on the ethics of condoned murder. I will lose no sleep over Saddam’s execution, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it as a punishment. That I even feel compelled to write that last sentence is sign enough that too many capital punishment supporters (dare I say fans) would accuse me of sympathy for Saddam because I don’t believe we should’ve been complicit in his murder. Don’t we deplore murder?

Until today, I couldn’t find the words to explain why I can disagree, even with a figure so worthy of such a punishment as Saddam Hussein. The only drawback is that Jacob Sullum wrote the right words at Reason’s Hit & Run before I could express them. I’ll quote him here discussing the etiquette of what happened:

… I’m a little puzzled by the expectation that one really should be polite to a gentleman one is about to kill. …

No, the taunts bother people because they’re undignified and emotional, revealing too much about the true nature of the event, which is a dressed-up, cold-blooded version of vengeance, prescribed and limited by law. They bother people for the same reason we don’t have public executions anymore, with crowds gathering to jeer and cheer after a nice picnic lunch. But what is the right way to kill a man who deserves to be killed? Calmly, professionally, and rationally, or angrily and triumphantly, while shouting “die, motherfucker, die”?

That’s it exactly. We want to make the event solemn, more for us than the condemned. He is going to die and we’re going to take joy in the act. But we want to pretend that it’s just. It is not. We are complicit in murder, for no better reason than vengeance. It’s unpleasant and unbecoming of a civilized society, but at least be honest about it. I respect honesty. That would be an improvement over an unconvincing argument that execution is necessary without the threat of imminent danger.

How do we protect government from itself?

This is a few weeks old, but I’m just seeing it now. Accidental vacations have a way of encouraging information delinquency. Anyway, the underlying concepts won’t age, so here it is:

Trans fats are largely synthetic fats widely used in fried foods and baked goods. There is substantial medical evidence that they are significant contributors to heart disease (perhaps increasing the incidence of heart disease by as much as 6 percent) because they both raise the cholesterol that is bad for you (LDL) and lower the cholesterol that helps to protect your arteries against the effects of the bad cholesterol (HDL). About half of New York City’s 20,000 restaurants use trans fats in their cooking; and roughly a third of the caloric intake of New Yorkers comes from restaurant meals.

That’s from Richard Posner, at The Becker-Posner Blog. It’s a fair enough assessment of trans fats and why health officials think it’s bad. There is no harm in information, right? But how do those facts justify a complete ban on the ingredient in all New York City restaurant meals?

What is missing in this analysis is a cost that, ironically, a great Chicago economist, George Stigler, did more than any other economist to make a part of mainstream economic analysis: the cost of information. It might seem, however, that the cost of informing consumers about trans fats would be trivial–a restaurant would tell its customers whether or not it used trans fats, if that is what they’re interested in, and if it lied it would invite class action suits for fraud. But there is a crucial difference between the cost of disseminating information and the cost of absorbing it.

When I first read through this, I’d intended to discuss “the cost of absorbing it” in this context. But that would be less interesting than this, from later in the paragraph:

Actually the danger would be impossible to explain to diners, because it would depend on the diner’s average daily consumption of trans fats, which neither the diner nor the restaurant knows.

Want to take any guesses about who else doesn’t know the diner’s average daily consumption of trans fats? The government, of course, although it’s less far-fetched to believe that the government wants to know. Rather than the invasive, suspect process needed to keep an accurate, or even approximate, tally, it’s easier to just ban everything. That way, the government knows how much trans fat diners will consume in restaurants.

The acceptance of paternalism continues:

In such a situation, even those of us who distrust government regulation of the economy should be open to the possibility that the ban on trans fats would produce a net improvement in the welfare of New Yorkers by satisfying a preference that most of them would have if the cost of absorbing information about the good in question were not prohibitive.

There are tidbits of possible solutions sprinkled throughout the entry. Instead of less troublesome tactics such as mandatory labeling and government marketing against trans fats, Judge Posner finds government prohibition amenable. Unreal. The cost is less prohibitive in either of my hypothetical solutions, although they’re still far from libertarian dreams. Judge Posner’s conclusion is incompatible with liberty.

Hat tip: Hit & Run