On Libertarian "Logic": Retarding Science
By Leroy W. Demery, Jr.
With reference to smoking, it pays to remember that "popular wisdom" at least in some circles held that smoking was "bad." This was true decades before the 1964 Advisory Committee report to the U.S. Surgeon General. There's a line in Rudyard Kipling's novel "Captains Courageous" - first published in 1897 - that demonstrates this.
It also pays to remember that the advisory committee's findings were not accepted "immediately." I can remember hearing about contradictory studies to ca. 1975.
Later, secondhand smoke became an issue because of research results - but look how long it took for laws prohibiting smoking in bars and restaurants to be enacted. The European Union is still working on this.
Although he'd probably argue against this vigorously, I think that David Godow--a research assistant at the Reason Foundation--uses science to justify what he wants to do (or not to do) - rather than make public policy decisions based on science. In other words, typical "Libber-tarian."
Regarding a response to our comments regarding the May 2011 Reason article, co-authored by Bruce Bartlett and Godow and published originally by The Providence Journal, (To Boost Economy, Curb Smuggling, Cut Cigarette Tax), Godow latter writes:
As I acknowledge in my post, the argument that soda-fueled obesity costs the American taxpayer in the form of government-funded health care is plausible.
That's actually a "strawman." He then writes:
But if this is to be the rationale for a soda tax, supporters have to show that 1) soda is a primary driver of obesity and obesity-related disease, 2) the external costs to society are substantial and quantifiable, and 3) the tax would actually target people at risk for illness.
Note that he also writes:
...  Americans  aren't getting fat just from drinking soda, but from poor diet in  general. Of course, the drivers of obesity go beyond diet - lack of  activity, genetics, you name it.
A "causal relationship" between "soda" and "genetics" is unlikely.
Ditto for a "causal relationship" between "soda" and "lack of activity."
A "causal relationship" between "soda" and "poor eating habits" is another story.
In educational circles, it has long been suspected that "junk food" and "empty calories" (i.e. "soda") shape poor eating habits, which in turn contribute to obesity. I (Demery) went to work in an elementary school back in 1976 ... possibly before Godow was born. I'd have to say that anyone attempting to argue the opposite "back then" would not have been taken seriously.
Sidebar for the benefit of the "we want proof" crowd. One day when I was new on the (school) job, I asked the teacher about a certain 6-year-old boy. He "looked" healthy and normal, but his speech (articulation) was very bad - sometimes, he was unintelligible. I asked her, "why can't he talk?"
Her response: She opened the file cabinet, pulled out the folders, and ran the proverbial "Level 10 Diagnostic." I remember exactly how she started: "OK, he was a full-term baby." Step by step, summarizing every score, test result, piece of paper.
She had a point to make, and it went (something) like this: "There's nothing here that gives any idea about what causes the problem. So, what are you going to do? Are you going to continue searching for "the cause" - which you're not going to find - or are you going to treat the problem?"
Now that made perfect sense to me. However, I learned right away that it didn't make sense to certain "other people" - those who were fascinated by the question of "causation." I learned that a "subset" of such individuals had a virtual obsession with "causation." Even if I growled something like, "It probably arises from some sort of 'abnormality' in brain function, and that might not be detectable even at autopsy."
My point is that, if presented with certain categories of problems, you don't waste time and effort searching for an explanation. You get to work on the problem itself. However, I think that Godow already has his mind made up - and that this fact is relatively easy to discern.
A 2008 study found that a 1% increase in state soda taxes leads to only a 0.003 decrease in Body Mass Index.
The uncertain actual interest of soda on obesity makes 2) very problematic for soda tax supporters.
The suspected (and probable) causal relationship is behavioral, starting at childhood. Studies would take decades to complete - literally.
Am I to believe that that "2008 study" dates back to, say, 1980 - and includes a "control group?"
David Godow implies that there exists some doubt as to whether "obesity and obesity-related disease" lead to "external costs to society" that are "substantial and quantifiable." (One never knows with these libber-tarians.) Either his writing needs improvement or he's a non-resident of Planet Earth. I don't have any studies at hand, but I'd have to say that obesity among teenagers increased - and visibly - during the 30 years 1971-2001 (i.e. from my graduation from high school to my "graduation" from teaching).
In general, it is certainly a good thing to minimize negative externalities. But given the shaky evidence behind soda tax claims, it's more likely that such taxes will simply provide windfall revenue for money-hungry state governments. Tax proponents might be able to win support with that kind of argument, but they should at least make it on that basis and not pretend that the scientific consensus behind the externality issue is complete.
And, as President Barack Obama once wrote, ideology supersedes whatever facts call theory into question.
Scientific consensus" does not exist and will probably not exist during our lifetimes - it would take, say, 40 years to conduct the kind of longitudinal studies needed to examine the suspected causal relationship.
In general, it is certainly a good thing to minimize negative externalities.
That is mere lip service - when is it "not" a good  thing to minimize negative externalities?. It is well known that "obesity and obesity-related disease" have consequences and costs to society. The problem has apparently intensified over, say, the past decade.
So: if society is rational, should it not begin attempting to reduce "negative externalities" before the results of those 40-year studies are in?