I love debates, especially on the proper role of government. I’ve always believed in the concept of personal liberty up to the point where it begins to infringe on the well being of others. Of course, where to draw the bright line is often ambiguous. Protesting at the funeral of a gay soldier causes distinct emotional damage, but the alternative is a degradation of the First Amendment. Nobody ever said this stuff was easy.
Yet it is questions like these that motivate the discussion. The big conflict lately has been over the federal deficit. In my view, excessive federal debt causes two primary problems. It saps our treasury through interest payments and increases the risk that our borrowing rate will skyrocket, making it prohibitively expensive to borrow money. While the first is a well understood problem, the second raises many questions. What needs to happen before lenders lose faith? When will interest rates rise? How quickly? Will the US be able to absorb it at that time?
Assessing these harms should be done though standard risk analysis where we integrate the probability of an event’s occurrence times its impact. Only then can we compare an solution involving a constraint on liberty to gauge whether its warranted.
One idea that was introduced to me recently was that of eating habits. The largest single problem with our debt is rising health care costs. A significant driver of health care costs is obesity and associated harms like diabetes and heart disease. Much of this is driven by the generally poor diet of many Americans. Does the federal government retain the right to constrain people’s eating habits if it would save hundreds of billions of dollars per year? Is this degradation of freedom offset by the promise of better health and a balanced budget? Instead of clinging to platitudes of freedom and government tyranny, we should recognize the broad shades of gray in these problems and have an intelligent, informed, and balanced discussion. My hope is that this is not too much to ask.