Mark D. White
That was fast--in a "Room for Debate" feature that went online Saturday evening, the New York Times asked "What's the Best Way to Break Society's Bad Habits?" The contributors, predictably, take the question at face value and answer accordingly. But the question is nonsensical and the answers beside the point.
"Society" does not have bad habits--people do. And it is not for "society," or anyone in it, to decide whether a person's habits are bad, except that person himself or herself. Others are free to tell a person they think he or she has bad habits, to try to persuade or inform him or her about why these habits are bad, but only the person who has these habits can judge whether they are bad, based on his or her own interests.
So the question the Times poses is based on a false premise. A better question would be, what can we do as a society to help people conquer habits that they themselves judge are bad? Paternalism won't work, since it paints with too broad a brush, affecting everyone with a particular habit whether they think it's bad or not. The best way to help people break self-identified bad habits is to hold them responsible for their consequences.
But exactly the opposite is happening: we are moving away from individual responsibility and toward collective responsibility. This shows up most clearly in health care, where the more responsibility the government takes (or forces private insurers to take) for people's unhealthy behavior, without being able to charge more in premiums or deductibles to make up for it, the less incentive people have to moderate such behavior. If they were faced with even some of the costs of their behavior (as they would under a more flexible private health insurance system), people could make a fairly rational decision whether the cigarettes, or soda, or fatty foods, are worth the eventual cost. But now their personal costs are opaque, consisting of taxes or insurance premiums largely unrelated to their behavior.
And the all-too-predictable result of more collective responsibility for health care is more governmental control of behavior. Restrictions on unhealthy behavior are not just paternalistic anymore--they're now a public cost problem. Cities and states are eager to cite rising Medicare costs as justifications for their restrictions on smoking, trans fats, and other health risks. (Forget broccoli: academics today seriously endorse plans to mandate exercise.) But this is like the boy who shot his parents and then argues for mercy because he's an orphan; by claiming responsibility for health care costs, the government has created the crisis (or at least this particular part of it) which "justifies" restrictions on behavior.
Let people judge whether their own habits are good or bad, and let them take responsibility for the consequences of these decisions. That's the right answer to the right question.