Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Jacob Sullum on the Tyranny of Public Health

Last year, when the tobacco companies said they would no longer cooperate with the effort to pass a federal anti-smoking bill, the Clinton administration said it didn't really matter. "We will get bipartisan legislation this year," Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala told NBC. "There's no question about it, because it's about public health."

As it turned out, Shalala was a bit overconfident. But her prediction was certainly plausible, given the way politicians usually behave when the term public health is bandied about. The incantation of that phrase is supposed to preempt all questions and erase all doubts. It tells us to turn off our brains and trust experts like Shalala to think for us....

In short, there is no end to the interventions that could be justified in the name of public health, as that concept is currently understood. Although this sweeping approach is a relatively recent development, we can find intimations of it in the public health rhetoric of the 19th century.

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