An Epidemic of Meddling

In "An Epidemic of Meddling," (May) Jacob Sullum states that people who don't want to pay for the dangerous behavior of others shouldn't support taxpayer-funded health care. Most people already are paying for the behavior of others, however, due to the fact that the majority of people receive health insurance through their employer.

Many employers are cutting back on the benefits they provide to employees due to the rising cost of health care. Thus, healthier employees may see their benefits reduced in order to pay for the health care of their unhealthy co-workers. Taxpayer-funded health care would, without question, give the government an excuse to meddle in the private lives of individuals to an even greater extent than it does already, as the government would use the fact that it is paying for an individual's health care as justification for instructing that same individual on how to live. The risk of government meddling, however, is no greater than the risk of corporate meddling under the current system.

A recent edition of BusinessWeek discussed how corporate employers are using the rising cost of health care as justification for interfering in the private lives of their employees.

The article profiled one employee who was seen leaving work with a pack of cigarettes; the next day he was tested for drugs. When his results came back positive for nicotine he was terminated, despite the fact he had been smoking on his own time and in his own home. His employer justified his termination on the grounds that, because it pays for its employees' health care costs, it has the right to fire employees who cause health care costs to rise through unhealthy activities such as smoking.

I am personally against all meddling, whether it is from the government or my employer. If I had to choose between the two, however (and it appears that I do), I consider government meddling the lesser of two evils. Although the government may choose to tax my unhealthy behaviors, at least it can't fire me for them.
Erik Simpson
Las Vegas, NV

I don't want our government to become the Fat Police. But it hurts nobody to spread information about the dangers of supersizing your meals on a regular basis. Similarly, requiring restaurants to list calorie counts on menus would assist health-conscious patrons to make informed choices.
reason consistently advocates "free minds and free markets"; isn't a "free mind" one that independently makes decisions and has relevant information available to do so? Without a doubt, many would order the 10,000-calorie dessert anyway, but the indulgent patron would no longer be able to cite his own gross ignorance in a frivolous lawsuit against McDonald's or The Cheesecake Factory for making him fat.

Our citizenry is savvy enough to give overreaching proposals the ridicule they deserve. In the meantime, it is inappropriate to dismiss all proposals to improve public health as equally bad.
Toni Jeffrey
Felton, CA

Jacob Sullum replies: I understand the resentment of employers' health-related demands, which are mainly the result of government policies that encourage businesses to offer medical coverage instead of higher wages. But unlike Erik Simpson, I worry more about the government's attempts to shape health-related decisions than about private employers' efforts to control their insurance costs. For one thing, the government's agenda is more open-ended; it may seek to promote health for its own sake, instead of simply to reduce public spending, and it may not be satisfied simply to make sure that people with especially risky lifestyles pay their fair share of expenses. More important, the government uses force to get its way by, for example, imposing punitive taxes on dangerous products or, in the extreme, banning them altogether. By contrast, employers are limited to setting the conditions under which they're willing to hire someone, and competition among them helps limit the intrusiveness of their requirements.

Wikipedia and Beyond

Initially I was irritated by the statement in "Wikipedia and Beyond" (June) that "Answers.com is composed almost entirely of Wikipedia content reposted with ads." After all, we've licensed and integrated 179 other dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopedias, and almanacs besides Wikipedia. More than 2.5 million non-Wikipedia entries. Why the unfair stereotype and put-down?

But I figured it out! In his landmark Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn wrote how every scientific revolution naturally starts with revolutionary ideologues—fanatics, if you will. They are required to negate established wisdom in order to make their point.

So it is with user-generated content, wikis, and maybe open source in general. Its proponents must knock professionally developed editorial content. That's the point. Journalists are human and thrive on this polemic. When the dust and pendulum settle, the anti-Wikipedians who say it "promotes a 'dictatorship of idiots' over a 'dictatorship of experts'?" will be proven wrong. So will the equally strident anti-professional camp.

We are proud that Answers.com provides ad-supported free access to more than 4.5 million topics, combining 180 trusted content sources, for a simple all-in-one reference experience. It smoothly integrates reference works from Houghton-Mifflin, Roget's, Thomson-Gale, McGraw-Hill, Oxford University Press, Columbia University Press, Britannica, All Media Guide, Who2, CIA, Hoovers, MarketWatch, and Accuweather. And yes, Wikipedia, too!
Bob Rosenschein
CEO, Answers.com

Presidential Scouting Reports

Gov. Bill Richardson has indeed reduced New Mexico's top income tax rate from 8.2 percent to 4.9 percent, but calling him "one of the country's most tightfisted executives" is a bit of a stretch ("Presidential Scouting Reports," June).

After all, Richardson just signed a one-year budget increase of greater than 10 percent, fueled by the massive growth of New Mexico's oil and gas industries. This is not an anomaly: Richardson's spending has far outpaced the combined effects of inflation and population growth every year he's been in office.

An example of this profligacy is the $400 million taxpayers are being forced to spend on a commuter rail boondoggle that will soon travel a sparsely populated route from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. Because of priorities like this, Richardson has missed a golden opportunity, in light of the inflow of oil revenue, to further reduce New Mexico's onerous tax burden. This tax burden includes a convoluted and harmful gross receipts tax that is applied as a sales tax, often at rates exceeding 7 percent. It is levied on services as well as goods. This creates a situation in which taxes are often charged on taxes, a problem called "tax pyramiding."

Lastly, while he is not outwardly hostile to school choice, Richardson has done nothing (with the exception of spend more money) to expand school choice initiatives.

Richardson's outlook may be somewhat more pro–limited government than those of his fellow Democrats, but he should not be confused with a genuine fiscal conservative.
Paul J. Gessing
President, Rio Grande Foundation
Albuquerque, NM