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This is part 14 of my “Think! Of God and Government” debate series with Christian author Andrew Murtagh. Read my latest post and Andrew’s reply.

Hi Andrew –

I always like it when people come to our debates and tell us afterward that neither of us was who and what they were expecting. I take pleasure in confounding expectations!

I like your mention of the public school system, which is one of the best things that the government has done: a great equalizer, a stirring rod of the American melting pot, and a ladder up for children who have few opportunities – even when (as it too often is) it’s stretched thin and scapegoated by politicians. As I’m sure you know, there’s a well-oiled campaign, backed mostly by religious conservatives, to either starve the public school system by allowing parents to redirect their tax dollars as vouchers to private schools, or to dismantle it entirely.

That said, I think that the framing of “small” versus “big” government is a red herring. Liberals and conservatives alike, we all cheer for government when it does things we agree with and denounce it as tyrannical when it does things we disagree with. Some of the same people who want an end to the public school system are willing to drastically expand the scope and reach of government power to put an end to abortion, such as by passing burdensome, intrusive regulations that are designed to make it impossible for clinics to operate. On the other hand, I think a lot of liberals would be happy to see spending cutbacks on the military, which is by definition the most powerful manifestation of government there is. I doubt there’s anyone who wants “smaller” government no matter what or “bigger” government no matter what.

This shows how essential it is to have a political system that can accommodate reasonable disagreement. We all want to see the just city, but we don’t agree on what that looks like. Too often, the “just city” vision assumes that all citizens will eagerly cooperate with each other, contribute to the common good, and work out their differences peacefully and rationally, and that’s very rarely the case. That’s one of the reasons why I’m in favor of capitalism, because in spite of all its flaws, it’s the only economic system that has an answer for the tragedy-of-the-commons problem. (Possibly a topic for next time?)

Countless utopian schemes have been tripped up by people just being their normal fractious, lazy, short-sighted selves. We blame outside forces for things that were under our control; we make bad decisions and then expect others to rescue us; we mindlessly sacrifice long-term well-being for short-term pleasure; we don’t want to pay taxes, but we do want the things those taxes pay for. I’m not exempting myself from this judgment! Our rationality is imperfect at best, and self-control is a finite resource that can be depleted by constant use.

Health care is the perfect example of this. In the Western world, we’ve gotten so good at fighting disease and saving people from trauma that the biggest killers are chronic lifestyle diseases, like obesity-related diabetes or cancer from smoking. And it’s not just the West, either: these same ailments are skyrocketing in developing nations all around the world. It seems that, when people are given the opportunity to destroy their own health, they’re almost helpless to stop themselves. You’d think that your own long-term well-being is the best incentive there could possibly be, but it seems that most people’s minds don’t work that way.

I agree with you that, as much as possible, people should bear the costs of their own choices and not impose them on others. If I avoid smoking, exercise regularly, eat a good diet, and so on, it seems unfair that my insurance premiums will go up because other people are being careless with their health. I like your “toll road” idea, although I’d imagine people wouldn’t be pleased by the idea of having their health regularly assessed by the government. Another possibility that would help shift the burden is to raise consumption taxes on soda and other nutritionally worthless foods.

On the other hand, it’s not enough to just talk about individual accountability. We also need to take a critical look at the culture that pushes people, especially poor people with fewer options, to make those bad choices.

You’ve heard, I’m sure, about the “food desert” phenomenon where people in poor areas often only have access to packaged, heavily processed, nutrition-poor convenience food. And, of course, food companies have spent billions of dollars to push products that exploit primeval triggers in our brains, especially the addictive combination of fat, sugar and salt. Alcohol and tobacco companies, too, have repeatedly been accused of advertising to children. What better way to implant brand loyalty before people can rationally weigh the pros and cons of their choices?

In short, I’m saying that if we want people to make good choices, it’s not enough to punish them for making bad ones. We also have to make the better options both readily available and salient. (I’ve heard this called libertarian or soft paternalism.) I realize that this goes far beyond Obamacare or any other single law or policy, and can’t be accomplished by top-down governance alone. What do you think we can do to help people make better decisions?

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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