Moralistic Busybodies

Today many of our “leaders” take on the character of bing a moralistic busybody. Take for example, Senator Hillary Clinton’s view on television and video games.

And so we know that left to their own devices, you have to keep upping the ante on violence because people do get desensitized and children are going to want more and more stimulation. And unfortunately in a free market like ours, what sells will become even more violent, and the companies will ratchet up the violence in order to increase ratings and sales figures. It is a little frustrating when we have this data that demonstrates there is a clear public health connection between exposure to violence and increased aggression that we have been as a society unable to come up with any adequate public health response.

Allowing one’s children to play violent video games isn’t merely an issue of good vs. bad parenting, but a public health issue. This is one of the new ways of casting any type of activity that some people enjoy that others don’t and it is the focus of this article by Jacob Sullum. Also, the idea that the market is running rough shod on this issue is somewhat dubious. The above ignores the role of parents in the process. If an adult wants to play a violent video game, that is one thing, but the objection seems to be children playing these games. One has to ask, where are the parents? It seems to me that the objection by the good Senator from New York is as much about lousy parenting skills of many parents as it is about the content of the video games. Why not put forward a law to incarcerate bad parents, or fine them, or some other type of law dealing with the problem from that end?

[Aside: It may seem like I’m picking on Senator Clinton, but I see this problem all over the place with Republicans and Democrats alike.]

What do these four “public health” problems—smoking, playing violent video games, overeating, and gambling—have in common? They’re all things that some people enjoy and other people condemn, attributing to them various bad effects. Sometimes these effects are medical, but they may also be psychological, behavioral, social, or financial. Calling the habits that supposedly lead to these consequences “public health” problems, “epidemics” that need to be controlled, equates choices with diseases, disguises moralizing as science, and casts meddling as medicine. It elevates a collectivist calculus of social welfare above the interests of individuals, who become subject to increasingly intrusive interventions aimed at making them as healthy as they can be, without regard to their own preferences.

This pretty much nails it for me. It is some sort of puritanical hold over that what one group thinks is bad is therefore bad for everybody no matter what. It isn’t any different than the temperance movements from late in the 1800’s to the early 1900’s that ultimately gave us Prohibition.

And we can look at Prohibition to get some ideas of what might happen if these moralistic busybodies get their way. When Prohibition first went into effect it first looked like a success. The number of bars dropped off dramatically. The number of alcohol related deaths dropped by quite a bit (see update). Issues related to public drunkeness and other crimes dropped as well. Then speakeasies opened up and soon in many places the number of speakeasies out stripped the number of bars just before prohibition. The number of alcohol related deaths increased and surpassed its previous levels as now there was less quality control and people more often that before Prohibition drank adulterated alcoholic beverages. Eventually enforcing Prohibition and the problems that grew out of it became so costly that certain cities like New York passed laws that police were to not enforce Prohibition laws. Even the increasing expenditures on enforcing Prohibition are now viewed by all but he most die hard law-and-order types as a social waste.

Typically public health issues refer to things that impact people when people have no choice in the matter. Influenza is a good example of a public health issue. I have no say in whether or not I get sick. As such, there is indeed a potential role for government to play in these kind of events. Subsidizing vaccines for certain diseases is a good government policy since if less people have the disease, there are fewer people to spread the disease and the probability of contracting the disease also declines.

Things like playing poker, watching a violent movie, or drinking alcohol on the other hand are all choices. And when it comes to children parents have the ability to make these choices for their children. But the moralistic busybodies want to treat all of us as children, they want to be the ones making the choices. They want to control what we eat, drink, how much we exercise, and what we watch and what we do for fun and recreation. No more McDonalds, go for a 2 mile walk, don’t gamble, don’t drink alcohol, don’t smoke. Look out, that cell phone might give you a brain tumor or make you sterile. Pretty soon there will be some member of Congress putting forward legislation for a national bed time to ensure that people get enough sleep every night. People are so worried about methamphetamines that people with bad allergies have to now worry about going to jail for treating their allergies. We actually have some of these Nanny Staters suggesting that we prohibit running on play grounds at schools since 17 kids die and 200,000 are injured on average each year. It is an epidemic you see. And at the same time we are facing a national epidemic for obesity…but just don’t run, jump, or swim to battle your bulging gut, you might trip and fall or drown.

This concern for all these faux “epidemics” is basically a long slow slide into less and less freedoms. Where we can’t do things we enjoy because they could lead to one of these “epidemics” that politicians of all stripes seem to find so abhorrent. And we can’t have that. So no more drinking alcohol, no more eating a cheeseburger, no more smoking, no more sex, no more television, and for God’s sake protect the children.

Update: Dave Schuler pointed out in comments that deaths related to alcohol dropped prior to Prohibition and hence it wasn’t a benefit of prohibition. However, one of the arguments of the Prohibitionists was that a policy of prohibition would prevent a rise in the number of alcohol related deaths. This was not the case, with Prohibition the number of alcohol related deaths returned to its pre-WWI levels. Dave argues that this was probably going to happen anyways due to Persistence Theory. While this might have happened, the point is still valid that Prohibition did nothing to stop this and may have made the problem worse. The Cato link above notes that the alcohol related deaths did not rise, and in some cases actually fell, in countries like Denmark, Ireland and Great Britain in the 1920s.

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Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. Wyatt Earp says:

    Upping? She couldn’t find the word “raising?” Now, that’s Presidential material.

    I also heard that children who play video games become embroiled in affairs with their interns later in life.


  2. Dave Schuler says:

    The number of alcohol related deaths increased and surpassed its previous levels

    Is that true? The statistics that I’ve seen suggest that alcohol related deaths increased and might have surpassed pre-Prohibition levels on a Persistence Theory basis except that Prohibition was repealed.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    The Cato link you provided does not support your claim (it supports mine) and neither do the links from the Cato report.

  4. Steve Verdon says:


    Based on what I’ve read, yes it is true, as for the cause, I think it is true it probably would have gone up since alcohol related deaths declined during WWI. But the point of Prohibition is that it would prevent the rise, it didn’t hence on that issue the policy was a failure. From the Cato link,

    An examination of death rates does reveal a dramatic drop in deaths due to alcoholism and cirrhosis, but the drop occurred during World War I, before enforcement of Prohibition.[28] The death rate from alcoholism bottomed out just before the enforcement of Prohibition and then returned to pre-World War I levels.[29] That was probably the result of increased consumption during Prohibition and the consumption of more potent and poisonous alcoholic beverages. The death rate from alcoholism and cirrhosis also declined rather dramatically in Denmark, Ireland, and Great Britain during World War I, but rates in those countries continued to fall during the 1920s (in the absence of prohibition) when rates in the United States were either rising or stable.[30]

  5. floyd says:

    Every time you increase that which you expect from government, you must expect a corresponding increase in government meddling.
    If we want to preserve personal freedom, we must work to preserve personal responsibility.
    The more government provides, the more government controls!

  6. Considering the manner in which violent crime in general and juvenile crime in particular have dropped furing the last 20 years, perhaps we should be encouraging our kids to play MORE violent video games.

  7. …you have to keep upping the ante on violence because people do get desensitized…

    If that were true, then instead of going from Doom and C&C to Psychonauts and Katamari, I would have gone the other direction.

    But I didn’t.

    Which is why, in general, generalizations suck.