Public Health

'Public Health' Has Become a Catchall Excuse for Bad Ideas

From to-go cocktail bans to Neil Young to teachers unions, the pandemic has provided a convenient pretext for selfish advancement.


One of the notable developments of the pandemic era has been the tendency to use public health as a pretext for some other goal that has little or nothing to do with public health. You can see this, in different ways, in everything from Neil Young's war on Spotify and Joe Rogan to teachers union recalcitrance to President Joe Biden's legislative agenda. But let's start with an issue close to my heart: the fight over to-go cocktails in the state of New York. 

Until the onset of COVID, it was illegal to purchase a to-go cocktail in New York. Bars and restaurants were strictly limited to on-premise sales. Legally, you couldn't take your end-of-night Appletini home with you. But when local officials shut down indoor dining in 2020, they made an allowance: Cocktails produced in a bar could be sold for takeout consumption. Suddenly, that Appletini became a grab-and-go purchase.

Like many policies enacted in spring 2020, New York's legalization of to-go cocktails was passed on an emergency basis. And in June 2021, the emergency authorization expired rather unexpectedly. 

One reason why it expired was that liquor stores, who would prefer to have the market for booze consumed at home all to themselves lobbied heavily against extending the policy. So it's no surprise that in the weeks since New York's Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that to-go cocktails would be back on a permanent basis, liquor stores have renewed their campaign to stop the policy. 

Among the reasons the liquor store lobby has cited for prohibiting bars and restaurants from selling to-go booze: the prospect of a "public health crisis." As Baylen Linnekin noted recently, a lobbying group for New York liquor stores recently warned that permanent to-go cocktails could also "increase DWI incidents and underage sales," as if it's impossible to pop open a beer in the car on the way home from the local spirits shop, or for an adult to purchase a bottle of Jameson and pass it off to a minor.  

In any case, what we have is an industry whose entire business revolves around selling booze for people to consume at home strenuously objecting to a law that would expand the ways in which people consume alcohol at home—for public health reasons. Sure. 

You don't have to be all that sober to see that there are other motives in play here: Just read the lobbying group's statement, which also warns that Hochul's proposal to permanently legalize to-go sales "will devastate our liquor stores." Given the recent boom in liquor store sales, I'm skeptical that bars and restaurants selling pricey, single-serving, take-home cocktails are all that much of a threat to those whose business involves selling big jugs of Jameson. But in any case, it's clear that the liquor stores are mostly motivated by the threat of competition, not concerns about public health. 

There's something at least a little bit similar at work in the recent battle of the bands between Neil Young, Joe Rogan, and Spotify. Last week, Young denounced Rogan's interviews with vaccine skeptics, demanding that the streaming music service ditch Rogan—and saying that if it didn't, he wanted his music removed from the service. Not surprisingly, given that Spotify had awarded Rogan a $100 million contract back in 2020, the service stuck with the extremely popular Rogan. Young's songs will be removed from the service. 

Was this really about vaccines? Well, maybe. Probably partly. But there were almost certainly other preexisting concerns in play as well. Neil Young, one of pop music's most outspoken audiophiles, has long been a critic of streaming music, and Spotify in particular, since Spotify does not currently offer high-resolution audio.

Years ago, when Apple's digital music business was still developing, Young backed an expensive device to rival the iPhone, the Pono, which was built for high-resolution music. And in 2015, before high-resolution digital music became common, Young took his music down from all streaming services, complaining that low-quality streaming "devalued" his music.

So Young had a preexisting gripe with Spotify's service that had nothing to do with Rogan's interviews.

It wasn't much of a surprise to see that after Young's music came down last week, he posted another note saying that he felt "better" having left "the shitty degraded and neutered sound of Spotify." He further warned that "if you support Spotify, you are destroying an art form" and told listeners who used the service they should "go to a new place that truly cares about music quality."

Exactly how much of Young's decision was about Rogan and vaccines, I cannot say. But it seems reasonable to suspect that at least some of Young's decision to leave Spotify came as a result of his longstanding complaints about audio quality—which he'd pulled his music from streaming services over before—rather than about Joe Rogan's influence on public health. But public health was the reason the old rock star gave for leaving, and the one that made headlines, perhaps not incidentally putting Young in the spotlight. (Surely unrelated: Did you know he has a new album and documentary out?) Public health provided Young a pretext for doing what he already wanted to do, and gave him attention in the process. 

Everywhere you look these days, you can see versions of this tendency, in large and small ways: Teachers unions have spent the last two years using public health fears as an excuse to stay out of classrooms. Biden and congressional Democrats have used the pandemic as an excuse for massive expansions of social spending that have little to do with responding to the coronavirus. 

It's not that every emergency measure or public stand taken in response to the pandemic has been a cynical act of self-advancement. No doubt some have been the product of sincere, if sometimes misguided, desires to improve public well-being. But some amount of cynicism seems appropriate; the totalizing emergency of the pandemic has created an aura of permission whereby moves that might otherwise seem selfish can be recast as pure and selfless when the reality is anything but.