September 5, 2013 5:52 pm

Politics echoes with the sound of quack policies

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Such proposals usually start with a real concern, exaggerate it and assume that citizens cannot be trusted
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What are “quack policies”? The name has been coined by the writer Jamie Whyte for policies that are claimed to be based on evidence but which do not stand up to scrutiny. Examples are given in a publication of that name issued by the Institute of Economic Affairs. Leading examples he gives are the attempt to impose a minimum price of alcohol, the attack on “passive smoking”, the global warming crusade and “happiness engineering”. The fact the book is published by the free-market IEA and that the policies he scrutinises find support in the left and centre of the political spectrum (including UK Prime Minister David Cameron) may cause many to ignore it. The loss will be theirs.

There is so much quack policy around that one does not know where to start. Such policies usually start with a genuine concern and exaggerate it in a one-sided way, but above all assume that citizens cannot be trusted to run their affairs. Many such policies are described as evidence-based even though the evidence does not always point to the supposed conclusions. There are two characteristic fallacies. One is that they overlook the benefits that people derive from the discouraged activities. The other is that they ignore the substitutes that are found and can be as harmful as the original. For instance, in Scandinavian countries, which have high alcohol taxes, many more people make their own alcoholic drinks than in other countries.

A more elementary mistake is inadequate reference. How often do we see statements that activity x doubles your chances of getting y. But unless you know what the chances were in the first place the information is of very little value. “Passive smoking” is alleged to increase the incidence of lung cancer among non-smokers. But as incidence of lung cancer among non-smokers is rare – 0.3 per cent – it would require a huge increase to justify banning passive smoking, even if that could be done.

Not all passive smoking is voluntary. A good example is the effect on children of smokers. But a prohibition on smoking in enclosed public places might be increasing the amount of smoking in the home and thus the dangers to children. Such effects are all too often ignored by those who delight in proposals to ban activities or make them prohibitively expensive.

We are on particularly slippery ground when it is suggested that governments should promote happiness. If this simply means letting people satisfy their preferences to the maximum feasible extent, it should be uncontentious. But promoters of “the new science of happiness” mean something different. They want to promote activities they believe will make us truly happy, and discourage others. To start with, such promoters have to rely on self-reported measures and we do not know how these relate to “real happiness”. But sceptics can go a bit too far. Mr Whyte suggests there is no measure that can apply equally to an 80-year-old woman’s love for her cat and a 17-year-old boy’s love for his girlfriend. But I am willing to assert that they are both happier when at liberty than in a concentration camp. Happiness may be subject to ordinal rather than cardinal measurement. But happiness promoters, which include the current British government, go beyond this and have whole lists of activities they wish to promote or discourage.

Happiness policy either refers to preference satisfaction that allows people to promote their interests as they see them or to promoting activities that various politicians and writers believe promote true happiness. Fortunately, these writers disagree among themselves, which gives us a little space to promote our happiness in our own way as implied by the American Declaration of Independence.

In many ways the most interesting part of Mr Whyte’s study is his last chapter, where he discusses what to believe in areas where we know little, which is most areas for most of us. We have no choice but to follow the experts. But we ought to insist on some information on the reliability of their beliefs. The basic physics of medium-sized objects travelling below the speed of sound have been well and truly established. Climatology is not in the same category. Its long-term predictions have not by their nature been tested and its short-term predictions have had very variable success. You can say the same for sociobiology, macroeconomics and aspects of quantum mechanics. What is lacking in most of these subjects is any statement of the degree of belief that experts have in their own findings.

But above all be careful of people pontificating outside their own field. For instance, Albert Einstein is frequently quoted as saying that most people only use 10 per cent of their mental capabilities. But how on earth could he know? He was a physicist, not a psychologist or neurologist. None of this is an argument for confining oneself to one narrow field. But in citing authorities be careful of “expertise slippage”. If Einstein were alive today, his views on Fed policy would be interesting but no more than that.

samuelbrittan.co.uk

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Letter in response to this column:

Apply a few principles, hope for best / From Mr Geoff Mulgan

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