Individual responsibility and situations

Michael Bloomberg’s recent attempts to reduce soda sizes and now to prohibit visually displaying cigarettes in stores have generated a great deal of comments on all sides. These are the kinds of basic policies that basically everyone feels comfortable chiming in on, which is fun. One popular view has been that these regulations are paternalistic and that consumers should be individually responsible for these decisions. Although plausible on its face, this analysis falls down when we consider the power of situations in shaping individual behavior.

It is important to note that Bloomberg never bans any consumption activity, not ultimately. Individuals are still permitted to consume as much soda as they’d like and as many cigarettes as they’d like. The only thing the regulation ends up doing is changing the consumption situation, i.e. the circumstances surrounding how the purchases are made. Changing the consumption situation will have one of two results. It will either affect nothing and people will consume just as they did before; or, it will change consumption behavior, presumably in the direction of consuming less soda and fewer cigarettes.

If it will have no effect, then obviously there is no reason to do it. Thus, the only interesting question arises when we assume it will have an effect on behavior. What then should we do?

The individual responsibility crowd says that we should not do anything because it would trample upon individual will. However, this kind of analysis rings hollow if we are assuming that minor tweaks to the consumption situation has behavioral effects. If altering situational variables — while still ultimately leaving open all consumption options — causes behavior to change, that calls into question the very notion that “individual will” is a stable or coherent thing to begin with.

In reality, individual will is always mediated through and partially formed by the situations it finds itself in, which together dictate which behaviors are ultimately realized. If the same person with the same individual will ends up not buying as many cigarettes because they are less apparent in the consumption situations she finds herself in, what actually is her individual will when it comes to cigarette consumption? To answer that question, we’d need some neutral baseline consumption situation that accurately reflects her core individual will. But there is no such baseline: it’s a total imaginary fiction. Instead we are just left to note that whatever her core individual will is, depending on how you set up the consumption situation, it manifests itself into different behaviors. Is one situation trampling on the will while the other isn’t even though each generate different behaviors relative to the other? Surely not.

Some rather unsophisticated efforts could be made to try to say that the will is whatever would happen absent government involvement in the issue or something. But as regular readers here should already know, this kind of no-government baseline is totally incoherent. The government is necessarily involved in establishing whatever consumption situation you find yourself in as that situation will be built upon property, contract, criminal, tort, land-use, and building laws, among others. As convenient as it would be to finally get that golden baseline that will tell us when situations and other things are being distorted, it doesn’t and will never exist. It’s all distortions, all the way down.

With that out of the way, the question then reduces to what consumption situation is the best one. They both respect individual will equally to the extent that saying that even makes sense. So the only difference is what we can empirically determine about how those consumption situations channel individual will into actual behavior. It seems totally reasonable therefore to establish consumption situations — again without actually banning or capping consumption — that best serve social goals, like good health and low mortality. If two consumption situations are equal in all other respects, then why wouldn’t you opt for the one that primes people to behave in the good way rather than the bad way without forcing them to do either?