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Beware the pretense of science

| Tuesday, June 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Judging from statements that regularly issue from politicians and the punditry — and from ivory-tower sages — you'd think that questions about what outcomes the economy “should” produce typically have answers that are objective, correct and specific. “Is this new drug safe?” “Is that amount of pollution too high?” “Are wages for those workers too low?” “What's the minimum number of days of paid vacation that workers should get annually?”

In response to such questions, the moralist within each of us demands specific answers: “Yes!” “No!” “Yes!” “Fourteen days!” It's satisfying to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad, saints from sinners, objectively correct answers from objectively incorrect ones.

But human nature makes the demand for such answers futile in many cases.

One reason is that each of us — as a worker, consumer, entrepreneur, investor, homeowner, voter, concerned citizen — is different from others of us. There is no objectively correct minimum number of days of paid vacation annually for workers as a group. Suppose I have a lower preference for leisure than you do. My preference cannot be projected onto you; it's just my preference. But because of my particular preference for little leisure, I'm more likely than are you to find and not to quit a job that offers fewer vacation days than your job offers.

Likewise, there's no objective yes-or-no answer to the question “Is this drug safe?” Your tolerance for risk might be higher than mine, and so you — unlike me — would prefer to take a certain drug rather than do without it. Your preference is neither right nor wrong; it's just your preference.

In both of the above examples — only two of countless ones — government-imposed standards cannot possibly be objectively correct. If government mandates that every worker get at least two weeks of paid vacation annually, the government will make those workers who prefer less leisure worse off. Forced to raise the amount of worker pay dispensed in the form of paid vacations, employers will lower the amount of worker pay dispensed in other forms such as cash or employer contributions to employee pensions. Such a regulation will make people who attach little value to leisure worse off.

The same holds true for drugs. Because no drug is completely risk-free, and because different people have different tolerances for risk, there's absolutely no scientifically objective way for the FDA to determine if a new drug is objectively too risky or not. That question is one of personal preferences and not one of science. And that question isn't miraculously transformed into a scientific question by government charging teams of scientists to assess whether this or that drug is “too risky.”

The pretense of science is not science. If government officials truly wish to be scientifically driven, they would allow each of us adults to choose which drugs we wish to take, regardless of the objective likelihood that someone will die or be seriously injured if he or she chooses to be treated with some drug.

Put differently, the scientifically correct level of riskiness of drugs for me is whatever level of riskiness I choose to tolerate. I — not some third party, not even one with an M.D. and who is appointed by government — am the only person on Earth capable of knowing the truth about what is, for me, the appropriate level of riskiness of drugs. Ditto for you.

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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