Healthy Debate

Jacob Sullum's "What the Doctor Orders" (January), the most important critique of governmental public health activities we have seen, should be assigned reading in every school of public health. We plan (with REASON's permission) to reprint Mr. Sullum's article in a special issue of our health magazine, Priorities, along with commentaries from several public health leaders and, hopefully, a rejoinder by Mr. Sullum. We think the special issue will encourage public health activists to consider the extent to which government health promotion programs can both threaten and enhance individual liberty.

We concur with Mr. Sullum that people engage in various health-compromising behaviors for pleasure, utility, or convenience. However, we don't think this means people, especially children, are necessarily prepared to accept the risks associated with their lifestyles. People tend to succumb to social pressure and impulse in adopting health-compromising lifestyles and then justify their actions by rationalizing about them. This is hardly the libertarian ideal of self-directed, reasoned decision making. Choices made by neglecting likely negative consequences may give some people a sense of "freedom," but how free can someone be who chooses chronic self-destruction?

Educational initiatives that deemphasize mere propaganda and help people learn to make carefully reasoned lifestyle choices may offer more genuine personal freedom than is provided by the simple opportunity to indulge in bad habits without government interference. For example, national dialogue about Surgeon General's reports on smoking has led tens of millions of Americans to modify their lifestyles and improve their lives. Would Americans actually feel more free or live more fully if government stopped addressing lifestyle and health issues altogether?

William M. London
Director of Public Health
Elizabeth M. Whelan
American Council on Science and Health
New York, NY

Jacob Sullum's outstanding feature on the public health establishment's imposition of values in the guise of science reminded me of a revelatory conversation I had not long ago. I had been out drinking with a friend, and the bar we were in was unpleasantly smoky. Later that night, my friend was complaining about the residual stink we had absorbed from the bar, and she said that smoking should be banned. I suggested that might be a bit excessive, but she explained her position: "I don't want to have to pay for medical care for all the people who get sick from smoking."

"Neither do I," I replied, "and that's a great reason not to socialize health care."

"But I believe in socialized health care," she responded, although she was visibly uncomfortable with the implication. Responsibility for the consequences cannot long be kept separate from control over the conduct. Wherever the cost of an activity is spread among the public, decisions that were previously private choices made by individuals for themselves are transformed into public decisions made by the political majority for everyone. Freedom gives way to coercion.

When an individual's behavior imposes significant costs on others, fiscal responsibility–and fairness–require that others have the power to regulate that individual's behavior. And of course, regulation inevitably reflects the values of the regulators, not the regulated; indeed, if they converge, regulation is hardly necessary. To wit: My friend and I had been drinking, an activity that imposes costs on others as surely as smoking does. But she didn't advocate banning drinking, because she places a value on that activity, whereas she doesn't understand why anyone would place a value on smoking.

In a free society, the voluntary assumption of risk is a wellspring of progress and pleasure. In a collectivist society, as Mr. Sullum reports, it is a crime. This simple, quotidian anecdote vividly illustrates the eternal truth that whenever government extends an open hand, you can be sure that its other hand is nearby–in a closed fist.

Jeff Bucholtz
Santa Monica, CA

Jacob Sullum's piece hit the target. The health care elite want to substitute absence of "premature death" for freedom as the primary American value. These fanatic crusaders are willing to forsake scientific virtue in their quest to achieve that goal.

A comprehensive 84-page analysis of CDC-funded research appears in "Guns and Public Health: Epidemic of Violence or Pandemic of Propaganda," in the University of Tennessee Law Review, 1995. The article is written by two professors at Harvard Medical School, a professor at Columbia Medical School, a professor of biomathematics, and a criminologist. They conclude: "The anti-gun health care advocacy literature…prostitute[s] scholarship, systematically inventing, misinterpreting, selecting, or otherwise manipulating data to validate preordained political conclusions….[these authors] all too often feel no compunction about asserting falsehoods, fabricating statistics, and falsifying references to counterfeit support for [their anti-gun agenda]."

The result is junk scholarship under the disguise of injury prevention. As that thorough study demonstrates, the health care advocacy literature regarding this public policy issue is fraught with partisan departures from scholarly inquiry. That is why, unlike true scholars, the CDC-funded doctors routinely refuse to make their data sets available to other scholars for comparison and evaluation.

Joseph Olson
Professor of Law
Hamline University
St. Paul, MN

Jacob Sullum responds: I thank Mr. London and Ms. Whelan for their kind remarks, but I have to say that their notion of freedom gives me the willies. In a free society, individuals constantly make choices that seem foolish or short-sighted to observers with different tastes and preferences. Personally, I do not perceive enough benefit in smoking to justify the risk. But I'm sure a lot of smokers would have a hard time understanding why I enjoy bungee jumping. By saying that individuals who defend their "health-compromising lifestyles" are simply "rationalizing," Mr. London and Ms. Whelan imply that such choices are inherently irrational and that people who make them must be ignorant, stupid, or crazy.

It's true that people sometimes regret decisions to engage in risky behavior. People make mistakes in every area of life. In this respect, the smoker with lung cancer resembles the woman who spends her life in a loveless marriage or the retiring CPA who wishes he had become an airline pilot. All three have made decisions that were hard to reverse, with consequences that are now permanent. If people are free only to make careful, reasonable, fully considered choices that they will never regret, they are not free at all.

Gay Rites or Wrongs?

David Link's "Gay Rites" (January) is a fascinating look at same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships. While exceptionally instructive on practical reality, it misses the very real issue of the right of the state to determine what constitutes marriage and what terms legally married individuals will conform to. The very fact that heterosexuals have ceded every one of their rights to make marital arrangements as they see fit should not be seen as a criteria for gays to do the same.

At present all unmarried couples do have legal methods of ensuring their wishes are carried out. These are typically clumsy and somewhat costly and are a problem that legally wed couples do not face. Yet those remedies exist.

Perhaps a lesser role of the state in marriage arrangements would be a better answer for both gays and straights. Given the American propensity to mind the business of others this would be an unlikely proposition. However, it would be an interesting exercise to imagine a world in which lovers actually decided for themselves what best constitutes a blissful union.

Michael R. Snell
Lake Elsinore, CA

"Gay Rites" missed the whole point of why gay couples seek and deserve legal recognition for their relationships. I am a gay man in a stable and long-term but legally unrecognized relationship with another man. My best friend, Jim, is a heterosexual who is legally married to a woman. If Jim and I both have heart attacks, his spouse automatically gets to make decisions but mine may well be excluded from the hospital. If we both die, his spouse automatically inherits and gets his pension benefits but mine doesn't. If we both lose our jobs, he continues to be covered by his spouse's health insurance but I don't. If we are both indicted for a crime, his spouse is immune from testifying against him but mine is not. And finally, his spouse pays no inheritance tax whereas mine will pay through the nose.

Most gay couples frankly don't care about the symbolic, pat-on-the-head social approval that marriage would confer on our relationships. We are much more concerned about taxes, inheritance, insurance, the right to make medical decisions for each other, and so on. Until such inequities are corrected, I don't want to hear one word from the radical right about how gay people are out to get "special rights."

Mel Dahl
Fall River, MA

I was disappointed that your article on gay marriages in Hawaii did not raise the issue of why government should even be engaged in regulating marriages. Marriage is primarily a religious celebration, and a religious rite. As such, government should have no involvement.

Does government have a role in marriage? Only in the realm of contract enforcement, and in protecting the rights and interests of minor children within the family formed by the marriage. This perspective gives an indication of what role government could play: register contracts between individuals, and enforce them. No ceremony need be involved, other than that required for any contract: a signing and witnesses. This would free up religions to do as they wish.

It would also allow for a variety of model contracts from which people could select: a limited partnership for a set period of time, an "at-will" partnership, or a lifetime partnership not terminable except with the agreement of both parties. Or, the participants could write their own contract, or modify a model.

Such a system would allow companies to define for themselves what relationships they wish to fund–or, better yet, eliminate benefits for families, and give all employees an equal wage and let them fund their relationships. The more relationships can be removed from social scrutiny, the better off we will all be.

Tom Slaughter
Jackson, MI

David Link responds: A key premise of Michael Snell's argument is that all couples, gay or straight, can ensure their wishes and desires will be carried out, even if the methods are cumbersome. That's not quite true, as Mel Dahl's letter illustrates. Certainly some of the things Mr. Dahl wants can be accomplished under existing law, such as the right of his partner to make medical decisions for him, or to inherit. Unmarried couples can sometimes get these default advantages most married couples take for granted, depending on the state where they reside. Similarly, some insurance companies do provide benefits for domestic partners. But Mr. Dahl and his partner have a legitimate complaint because they have to depend on the good graces of their legislators and private businesses to achieve an equality that ought to be assumed.

But they have no way at all of "ensuring" (to use Mr. Snell's word) that they can get pension benefits or certain tax breaks unless and until their relationship is given formal state recognition. It is this quality of being locked out that is most frustrating. Benefits are intended to reward couples who proclaim their commitment to one another in what Thornton Wilder called "a mighty public way." Same-sex couples are looked down on because of stereotypes about promiscuity and irresponsibility, and they're–by law–prohibited from doing something that would prove the critics wrong.

I share some of Tom Slaughter's concern about the interrelationships between marriage and religion, more so after discussing the article on a nationally syndicated call-in show and having the Bible quoted to me from five different states. While it's sometimes difficult to separate religious justifications from secular ones, I think it's possible.

And I think we have some awfully good reasons to provide affirmative support for couples who are willing to take the plunge. Or to put it another way, maybe the benefits we get for recognizing relationships are worth the effort. I don't think we need to encourage people to form relationships in the first place, which history and biology both suggest they will do irrespective of what the law says or does. The hard part is usually staying together, and while neither tax breaks nor tort law will be the deciding factor for most couples, I think there's something profoundly good about a society that says we not only value commitment in the abstract, but are willing to put our money where our values are.

Some of those values are enshrined in the Constitution itself. In December, the federal Court of Appeals decided Shahar v. Bowers, mentioned in the article. While the three-judge panel disagreed on some matters, they were unanimous in holding that same-sex couples, like opposite-sex couples, have a constitutionally enforceable right to intimate association that protects them against government intrusion.

The Case of Race

I want to congratulate you on your editorial on race, "Race to the Bottom" (December 1995). I have been quite disturbed by the racial overtone that has surfaced within conservative, and I should add libertarian, rhetoric in recent years (especially from the paleo-libertarian crowd). The critique of government race-based public policy must not be confused with racial intolerance. I appreciated your call for a consistent liberalism that celebrates the virtues of tolerance and the cosmopolitan vision that sustains the social cooperation of the liberal order.

Peter J. Boettke
New York, NY

It is indeed, as Virginia Postrel in her December editorial points out, "hard to lead a crusade for treating people as individuals when you're busy lumping them together by race." Her point is absolutely fundamental, and I have seen it made nowhere else. Conservative colorblindness rhetoric is often greeted with deep skepticism, and Ms. Postrel tells us why: Colorblindness advocates too frequently "wallow in stereotypes and omit countervailing experience." They complain that group-obsessed liberals are blind to individuality, but, in fact, it's an infirmity that crosses ideological lines.

Racial equality in American society awaits the day when blacks as well as whites are seen as individuals. The categories appropriate to a caste system that racial stereotyping creates are a poor basis on which to build a community of equal citizens. If conservatives want to shed their reputation for racism, it's a point they need to understand.

Abigail Thernstrom
Lexington, MA

Virginia Postrel, relying on Dinesh D'Souza's luridly distorted account of the 1994 American Renaissance conference at which I was a speaker, refers to me (along with columnist Samuel Francis) as an "overt white racist," without bothering to give a single example of my "racist" beliefs. Presumably Ms. Postrel makes this damaging but unsubstantiated charge because I argued at the conference that there are "large and enduring differences in average intelligence between blacks and whites," resulting in different levels of civilizational abilities. D'Souza himself specifically defines racism as the belief in such racial differences.

However, D'Souza's definition of racism is profoundly misleading. It makes racism sound like an intellectual or scientific theory, whereas in actual usage (including D'Souza's or Postrel's) to call something "racist" is to say that it is morally bad. These meanings contradict each other.

An idea stating a possible fact, whether it is the existence of gravity or the existence of inherited group differences in intelligence, cannot be morally bad, though it may turn out to be false. An idea can only be bad if it is knowingly false and hurtful. To take an extreme example, the statement "Group X are devils are created in a laboratory 5,000 years ago by a mad scientist" (which is what the Nation of Islam teaches about whites) is so implausible that the speaker must know it is not true. This suggests that his motivation is not to arrive at truth but to dehumanize Group X.

Based on the above, I'd like to propose what I think is a coherent and useful (though not exhaustive) definition of racism. A person is being racist if he 1) attributes a negative trait to an entire group; 2) does this out of ill will; and 3) is indifferent to evidence. By this definition, Ms. Postrel has the right to argue that assertions of racial differences in intelligence are untrue or socially harmful, if that is what she believes. But (lacking proof of either ill will or indifference to evidence) she does not have the right to call them racist.

Lawrence Auster
New York, NY

After reading Virginia Postrel's editorial, I went back to reread the Dinesh D'Souza articles she mentioned. The charge that "they seem designed not to elucidate the complexities of race in America but to justify readers' preconceived notions of black inferiority" is not only insulting to the editors and readers of The American Spectator and National Review, but, more importantly, is without basis in fact.

The National Review article "Myth of the Racist Cabbie" in particular discussed the critical observation that people of all races let racial stereotypes play a role in their treatment of other people (even people of their own race), and the article attempted to address why this is true. Although you might with some cause ridicule at least one of D'Souza's illustrations of stereotypes with "an empirical basis in shared experience," you never addressed his arguments about the public's common use of racial stereotypes, nor did you bother to suggest any source for the stereotypes other than the one D'Souza suggested.

Even in The American Spectator article, D'Souza raises the important question of how many of black Americans' problems are self-imposed by the lifestyles they choose to follow rather than externally imposed by white racism. Complaining about the lack of balance in his portrait of black Americans' culture totally misses the basic problem with his article–that is, that he simply assumes that a common culture is shared by all black Americans. Rather, to the extent that black Americans share common life experiences, most of these experiences largely stem from the common American culture in which all of us participate and contribute regardless of race. To the extent that many black Americans share the pathologies and dysfunctional characteristics about which D'Souza writes, these problems are largely the product of a drug-infested, violent subculture whose nucleus is certainly in the black lower class but whose scope clearly encompasses many Americans (including whites) outside that population segment.

Ms. Postrel writes, "You cannot get to a colorblind society by constantly reinforcing racial categories." True. But one also cannot get to a colorblind society by ignoring inconvenient facts and black Americans' problems, like the lack of academic ambition in many of their children. I must say that I laughed out loud at the suggestion in Ms. Postrel's editorial that attending Harvard University is part of "the black experience." (It is not even part of the white experience.) Perhaps she should join me at the convenience/liquor store near my old residence in Inglewood one evening. She will find remarkably few Harvard graduates loitering around its parking lot. She will unfortunately find all too many examples of people exhibiting the dysfunctional behaviors about which D'Souza writes.

Instead of acting indignant about D'Souza's articles and the magazines which published them, you should view the articles as merely a new contribution in a frank public dialogue about race and race relations–a dialogue which cannot be free of error or of giving offense because of human fallibility and the nature and complexity of the subject. Without the social liberty to participate in such an open and honest discussion, better long-run understanding cannot occur between the races, and a truly colorblind society in America will remain an elusive dream.

Carl L. Brodt
Columbus, OH

Virginia I. Postrel complains that the portions of Dinesh D'Souza's The End of Racism excerpted in National Review and The American Spectator omit the "countervailing experience" found in the excerpt published in The Washington Post, which thoughtfully includes "critical portrayals of overt white racists." She rudely suggests that the readers of National Review and The American Spectator are racists by saying that the mention of white racists "would have undoubtedly disturbed their readers."

As a regular reader of both REASON and The American Spectator, I am offended by Ms. Postrel's comment. Although we Spectator readers may prefer bourbon to white wine, we are just as aware of racism (white, black, and otherwise) as she is. I read the excerpt published in the Spectator and did not find a single factual error or misstatement. Nor, apparently did Ms. Postrel, since her whole gripe seems to be based on the fact that D'Souza presents examples of black hoodlums without balancing them with examples of black actors, servicemen, or data processors.

Of course D'Souza shows only one side of the story: This short section of his article is concerned with the pathology of black criminals, not with the hagiography of black choirboys. Ms. Postrel seems to believe that the only proper discussion of race is one that places a nice smiley face beside each frowny face.

Harvey Click
Columbus, OH

Ms. Postrel replies: I appreciate the comments of Peter Boettke and Abigail Thernstrom, both of whom restate nicely the main point of my article: that it is difficult, if not impossible, to advance the cause of individual treatment while reinforcing racial categories.

Mr. Auster's letter illustrates why I generally steer away from the term racism, which means related but different things to different people. I do think his requirement of acknowledged ill will goes beyond most people's use of the term, as does the leftist definition that requires political power (thereby absolving members of minority groups of racism). He also omits perhaps the most important components of racial bigotry: the assumption that the bigot is, by virtue of his or her race, superior to members of the inferior race.

Since I was not present at the conference in question, I cannot vouch for Mr. D'Souza's account of it (though subsequent quotes from Sam Francis in newspaper articles on his firing by The Washington Times convince me that he, at least, merits description as an overt white racist). At any rate, it was that account–and the absence of such acknowledgement of white racism from conservative discussions of race–that interested me. White racism, however defined, is not as pervasive as the left might have us believe. But it does exist, and not always in subtle forms.

Mr. Brodt's letter, while it contains some good points, also illustrates the problem of embracing racial stereotypes. In defending the rationality of stereotypes, Dinesh D'Souza not only suggests (as I mentioned in my editorial) that it's rational to think Jews are conspiring to take over the world–an idea I sincerely doubt he believes–but also that Hispanics (read: Mexicans, the actual stereotype) are lazy. This ancient stereotype defies any rational basis, since it is refuted by both statistical measures and casual observation; based on what anyone living in Southern California sees every day, "shared experience" would lead us to conclude that Hispanics are workaholics. Yet it is the laziness stereotype that Mr. D'Souza winds up defending, because the logic of his argument that essentially all stereotypes are grounded in reality leaves him with no alternative to doing so.

Clearly, something more complicated than simple experience is at work in producing stereotypes. History plays a role, as do group rivalries. How we generalize from our experience is warped by systematic biases, as a large body of work in social science having nothing to do with race suggests. And the lopsided numbers of whites and blacks in America can skew experience. Yet conservative writers on race, of whom Mr. D'Souza is only one example, are rewarded for eschewing any such complexities in favor of a simple defense of prejudice.

My point was not, as Mr. Brodt and Mr. Click suggest, that articles about race should be "balanced," in the ping-pong style so popular among newspaper journalists covering public issues. Rather, I would like to see the very distinctions Mr. Brodt himself makes–that there is not a single black culture in America, that black Americans participate in and help shape our common culture, that social pathologies are not limited by race–not only nodded to but internalized by policy analysts who say they advocate a colorblind society.

It is, of course, wrong to conclude that graduating from Harvard is typical of any race. The point Leonce Gaiter, whom I quoted, was making is that his experience, which includes a Harvard degree, is as authentically "black" as that of the gangster Kody Scott, a popular black exemplar for both liberals and conservatives. In fact, neither man's experience is typical, but Scott's is very often portrayed so. And Gaiter rightly objects to being lumped in with criminals on the basis of his race. A "frank public dialogue" would not exclude his position, his experience, or the law-abiding–and quite ordinary–lives of Scott's siblings, the "black actors, servicemen, or data processors" to whom Mr. Click refers. Their lives, not encounters with white racists, constitute the "countervailing experience" omitted from too many conservative discussions of race.

The alternative to portraying blacks as criminals (or, to take another example, men as rapists) is not hagiography or smiley faces. It is subtlety, individuality, and a willingness to challenge comfortable assumptions. This last goal might have been served had Mr. D'Souza's Washington Post piece appeared in National Review, and his NR piece in the Post. Instead, each publication's readers simply had their prejudices confirmed, their political world view undisturbed. That's a good way to avoid angry letters to the editor, but it's not especially helpful in moving America toward an honest, as opposed to merely nasty, discussion of race.

Shooting Back

I thank REASON for reviewing my recent book, The Politics of Gun Control ("Shooting Gallery," December). But your reviewer Jacob Sullum perpetuates an array of common errors often found in the gun debate. For example, he considers significant the fact that "a number of liberal constitutional scholars" say that the Second Amendment "is not null and void." Not only is the liberal label those analysts apply irrelevant to their analysis, Mr. Sullum undercuts his own credibility by giving such credence to self-identified liberals.

Mr. Sullum also disputes my dismissal of the 1857 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, insisting there is value in the case's passing reference to keeping and bearing arms. Bearing in mind that the old-style militias still existed in the pre-Civil War era, Dred Scott was overruled by constitutional amendment after the war. Yet even if it were still good law, it was not a Second Amendment case; moreover, the reference was dicta, not law. It is therefore an irrelevancy. On the other hand, Mr. Sullum ignores what is relevant–four Supreme Court cases and over a dozen lower federal court cases–that confirm that the Second Amendment pertains only to service in a government-organized and regulated militia. This is one controversy that has been long settled.

Finally, my book does not give "short shrift" to opposing views, but rather offers the most comprehensive look at the subject to be found in print. By accepting the hunting and sporting tradition, I make clear that I oppose "disarm[ing] gun owners." The whole basis of my argument is that gun control gridlock can only be broken when a pledge to oppose disarmament by control supporters is met with a reciprocal pledge from control opponents to accept a limited degree of arms control. Most of the nation's gun owners already support such a proposition.

Robert J. Spitzer
Professor, Political Science
SUNY Cortland
Cortland, NY

Jacob Sullum responds: The fact that some eminent constitutional scholars who were predisposed to be skeptical have embraced the individualist understanding of the Second Amendment is not decisive, but is intriguing. A person of ordinary curiosity would want to know what evidence and arguments convinced them. Similarly, Dred Scott v. Sandford does not settle the issue, but it gives some indication of how leading 19th-century jurists viewed the right to keep and bear arms. (In this connection, Professor Spitzer still seems confused by the distinction between citing the case as a binding legal precedent and citing it as historical evidence.) As for the Supreme Court cases that deal more directly with the Second Amendment, Professor Spitzer is well aware that their meaning and relevance are matters of dispute. Even if the Court had clearly and unequivocally declared the Second Amendment a nullity, we could argue about whether the case was properly decided. But as his reference to the Flat Earth Society makes clear, Professor Spitzer is unwilling to concede that his opponents have something worthwhile to say. In this context, his call to compromise–based on the reassurance that "we have the right to disarm you, but we won't"–is a non-starter.