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Damn Addiction

Another idea that seems to engender bipartisan approval is the passing of legislation to stop addictive behaviors from destroying our lives. The idea here being that even rational decision-makers are incapable now, at the time of choosing to consume something like heroin, of understanding what its current consumption will do to our future selves.

Now a simple defense of allowing the consumption of goods that may become addictive is that it is conceivable that heroin is a good thing. I don’t happen to think it is, but just because I don’t think it is does not make it universally true for everyone. If we care deeply about preserving individual choices, we may have to swallow hard and allow the ones that we don’t like.

But if course that is not the point of today’s post. The point today is that the term addiction is a snowball in the air (remember the two snowball toss your friends used to pull on you – chuck one in the air real high and then when you look up at it you get an iceball to the gut!), i.e. it’s a red herring. Why? Like many words in our language the word has become charged — so much so that any invocation of it conjures up ideas of people hanging around abandoned warehouses totally burned out after having robbed the nearest convenient store by gunpoint so that they could irrationally shoot up again for their latest fix.

But that’s absurd.

I don’t like to appeal to what dictionaries say, but if you look hard the term addiction refers to some compulsive need to do something or consume something. The word “bad” does not follow. And indeed not only do many of us exhibit addictive behaviors every day that are useful, but we also actively try to promote them in others, particularly our children. For example, I am totally addicted to reading economics and environmental websites. I am addicted to reading books on economics. I am addicted to spending my time thinking about inconsistencies in ideas. I am addicted to hiking. And so on.

No one I know would recommend paternalistic banning or regulation of what and how I read. Indeed, we see quite the opposite. There are all manner of public policies enacted to encourage reading. Our families enact all kinds of elaborate schemes to get our kids to love reading. We put all kinds of sparkles and interactive features on the picture books we read to our infants. We conjure up detailed stories of fantasy and heroics in the early stories we read to our children. We print books in all sizes, shapes and colors – all in the fevered effort to get our kids addicted to reading. Dad, “I’m bored!” To which all of us reply, “Open a Book!” Why does that sound any different to anyone than “Shoot up some heroin?”

The point of my question is not that heroin is good. It is that pointing to something’s addictiveness has nothing at all to do with whether it is desirable and certainly tells me nothing about whether public policy ought to be invoked. Inevitably, someone somewhere is going to have to appeal to either an economic argument for why my use of an addictive substance or engaging in addictive behavior is spilling over costs (or benefits) onto others, or if folks refuse to engage in the traditional market failure arguments they simply are going to have to admit that they want to impose their preferences on you, and that theirs are more important and more worthy. I am totally unconvinced that modern public policy is anything other than this (or that historical policy was any different).

After all, some might say my addiction to reading is harmful. I’d rather have my head in my Kindle than talk to my wife. I’d rather read a couple of books on the history of water than talk to my neighbors. I’d rather read Milton and Rose Friedman’s autobiography than participate in town meetings. I’d rather read a hiking magazine than balance my checkbook, pick my weeds, repair my driveway or paint my garage. Can’t you see how destructive my reading addiction is? It gets worse. Every time I get extra money from my job I go on a book buying binge on Amazon. Just ask my wife who does our books – another $550 book order is making its way to my house as we speak. One reason I chose my profession is so that I can indulge my insatiable desire to read and have it be considered part of what I do for my daily job. I even think of my savings and retirement and health strategies in a way that ensures that I’ll have plenty of time and quiet to read in my old age — indeed, my definition of flourishing and personal freedom is intimately tied into my ability to read and reflect on it, regardless of the rest of my physical condition.

I look forward to seeing laws passed to limit how much access to reading materials I have. By any objective measure I have gone far beyond the amount “necessary” for me to live a good life on my own terms, and clearly my selfish and addictive behavior imperils the community that I have chosen to live in.

5 Responses to “Damn Addiction”

  1. Dan says:

    If we’re going to appeal to the dictionary, I would take the next step and look up what ‘compulsive’ means. OED says: “Psychol. An insistent impulse to behave in a certain way, contrary to one’s conscious intentions or standards.” ‘Bad’ follows more easily from this definition. I can’t help doing something that I know is undesirable.

    Since we’re playing word games, I’ll follow by saying that you’re using the term ‘addiction’ too loosely in the following paragraphs. Heroin addiction is not analogous to really enjoying hiking. Are you addicted to hiking, or just like it very much? And do parents try to get their children addicted to reading, or try to help them develop an interest? Physical dependency is a pretty scary thing: this might be one of those times when a quantitative difference is so great that it turns into a qualitative difference.

  2. wintercow20 says:

    I do not necessarily subscribe to this, but Becker of course wrote a famous paper taking my argument much more literally than I do: Becker, G. and K. Murphy (1988) “A theory of rational addiction”. Journal of Political Economy, 96

  3. Harry says:

    George Bush II proclaimed, “We are addicted on oil.” George I proclaimed, “No net loss of wetlands.” The courtiers and the people were happy for the loose ideas in the proclamations.

    Walk up to somebody at a party and say, “You know, we actually are not addicted to oil at all,” they would probably think you had come from Mars. To get into a fight you might say it is not the same as their son’s $500 a day crack habit. To further the conversation, change the subject to school vouchers and the NEA, or better yet, federal funding of abortion. To muddle and confuse, discuss the differences between Greenspan and Bernanke.

  4. Harry says:

    What I wrote does not speak to Wintercow’s question; we are driving him nuts, and his questions are always bigger than the ones we try to answer.

    As Big Brother helps us to live comfortable, equal lives, Big Brother is concerned about our welfare, and the addictions we may encounter that might make us less useful to the common good. Maybe Big Brother, in his wisdom, allow Wintercow pursue his addiction to reading, wasting his time even, reading instead of doing house maintenance. This is a public health problem, a problem for people smarter than Rizzo to solve.

    But, they argue, Rizzo reads, and for that we will provide public libraries and our schools will give each of his children an IPad, so they can learn how to surf the Internet. We all know Big Brother encourages reading, which is virtuous.

    Hiking is a different matter. If it occurs over someone else’s property, that is OK. Playing golf is permitted, assuming one has fulfilled his/her societal obligations, but not on private courses, especially if you are a golf addict. Big Brother’s golf corollary is that every green must have the same speed, and have no slope.

  5. Harry says:

    OK, I can’t help it, WC, to add something more, and I hope my comment is not a narcisst, self-serving comment. Wintercow was making a different point, with which I agree, but I am jealous of Wintercow, having spent, very wastefully, doing all that reading in books which he paid for, depriving his family in the fashion of the robber barons, etc.

    Being a cheap bastard myself, I never have spent a dime on any of the novels I read, because they would take up space on my bookshelves. I read Rizzo, who has the energy to read all the time, I guess maybe eight good hours per day. I hope less, and feel gutilty, because he reads everything that comes here. We are not doomed yet, by the way.

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