Beware the pretense of science
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Attorney: Ferguson grand jury has reached decision
- U.S. Steel to relocate corporate headquarters on former Civic Arena site
- Allegheny judge Woodruff, ex-Steelers corner, to run for Pa. Supreme Court
- New Kensington-Arnold employee suspended over alleged inappropriate contact with student
- High winds knock out power, injure man at Cranberry construction site
- Clues to Chief Justice John Roberts’ thinking on new ObamaCare case
- PennDOT says opening of HOV lanes delayed because of power outage
- Pennsylvania human services agency gets new name
- Domestic dispute at gas station leads to lockdown at Arsenal Middle School
- 4 injured when vehicles collide, car plows into North Huntingdon auto body shop
- Allegheny County will stop asking about employees’ criminal history, executive says