Richard Posner

Posner the Fatuous

Richard Posner, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, recently opined for a unanimous three-judge panel when it tossed Wisconsin and Indiana’s same-sex “marriage” bans.  I certainly can’t improve on Ed Whelan’s commentary about Posner’s opinion (here, here, here, and here). Instead, I’ll examine Posner’s earlier conversion to the cause of same-sex “marriage.”

Posner announced his conversion in a blog post dated May 13, 2012. Here are some excerpts in italics, followed by my commentary in bold:

Beginning in the 1960s and accelerating dramatically in the 1990s and 2000s, legal changes and changes in public attitudes resulted in the dismantling of most public and private discriminatory measures against homosexuals. Why the powerful antipathy toward homosexuality gave ground so rapidly and, it seemed, effortlessly, in the sense that resistance seemed to melt away rather than having to be overcome by militant action, is something of a puzzle. Greatly increased tolerance of nonmarital sex, and of cohabitation as a substitute for marriage, reduced the traditional abhorrence of homosexual sex, which was (and to a large extent still is, since only a handful of states recognize homosexual marriage) nonmarital; and with the decline of prudery, deviant sexual practices created less revulsion in the straight population.

This passage effectively equates the rise of open homosexuality with the decline of sexual morality.

Another factor in increased tolerance is that as homosexuals began feeling less pressure to conceal their homosexuality, and so began to mingle openly with heterosexuals, the latter discovered that homosexuals are for the most part indistinguishable from heterosexuals, and this created sympathy for homosexuals’ desire to be treated equally with heterosexuals both generally and in regard to marriage.

Homosexuals are decidedly different from heterosexuals in their sexuality. How does that essential difference “create[] sympathy for homosexuals’ desire to be treated equally … in regard to marriage”? Posner glosses over the fact of a long, sustained campaign by media and political elites to “celebrate” homosexuality and to recognize same-sex “marriage.” Morally anchorless people are easily swayed by such campaigns because they don’t understand what’s at stake. Same-sex marriage, to the unreflective, is just another “good thing” that government can do for an interest group. Like almost every government program since the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887, the benefits (for some) are visible; the costs are hidden, but real nonetheless.

Moreover, the older view of homosexuality (especially male homosexuality) as a choice … gradually gave way to realization on the part of most people that homosexual preference is innate, rather than chosen or the result of seduction or recruitment.

Perhaps. But causality is irrelevant to the issue of same-sex “marriage.”

If homosexuality is innate, it becomes difficult to see why it should be thought to require regulation. And for the additional reason that the homosexual population is very small. Kinsey’s estimate that 10 percent of the population is homosexual has long been discredited; it appears that no more than 2 to 4 percent is.

If psychopathy is innate, and if there are relatively few psychopaths, why not let psychopaths murder at will? I’m not equating homosexuality with psychopathy, just pointing out the fatuousness of Posner’s analysis.

This small population [of homosexuals] is on the whole law-abiding and productively employed, and having a below-normal fertility rate does not impose the same costs on the education and welfare systems as the heterosexual population does. It is thus not surprising that in response to the President’s announcement of his support for homosexual marriage, Republican leaders cautioned their followers not to be distracted by this issue from the problems of the U.S. economy. This was tacit acknowledgment that homosexual marriage, and homosexual rights in general, have no economic significance. 

This is a side-show of Posner’s invention. Republican leaders certainly want to keep the focus on the state of the economy, but that has nothing to do with the public costs that might result from gay “marriage.”

It seems that the only remaining basis for opposition to homosexual marriage, or to legal equality between homosexuals and heterosexuals in general, is religious. [And blah, blah, blah.]

False. See related posts listed below.

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Related posts:
Same-Sex Marriage
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
In Defense of Marriage
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty

Obesity and Statism

Richard Posner, a leader of the law and economics movement, exposes himself as an out-and-out statist:

I am not particularly interested in saving the obese from themselves. I am concerned about the negative externalities of obesity—the costs that the obese impose on others. Some of the others are the purchasers of health insurance and the taxpayers who pay for Medicaid and Medicare and social security disability benefits…. Obesity kills, but slowly, and en route to dying the obese run up heavy bills that, to a great extent, others pay.

Even more serious are the harmful effects of obesity, and of the food habits that contribute to it, on children…. Children who grow up in a household of obese parents (often there is just one parent, and she is obese) very often acquire the same bad habits.

One might think that since most parents are altruistic toward their children, parents would strive to prevent their children from acquiring their bad habits. But if they don’t know how to avoid becoming obese themselves, it is unlikely that they know how to prevent their children from becoming obese.

Then too, the more people in one’s family or circle of friends or coworkers who are obese, the more obesity seems normal. This is an implication of the fact that homo sapiens is a social animal. We want to blend in with our social peers….

Bloomberg’s proposal is widely criticized, not only on the shallow ground that it interferes with freedom of choice, but on the more substantial ground that it can’t have much effect, since the same sugared drinks can be sold in smaller containers…. [I]f the sale of sugared drinks in big containers is forbidden, there will be at least a slight drop in the purchase of those drinks and hence in their consumption….

More important is the symbolic significance of Bloomberg’s proposal (if it is adopted and enforced). It is an attention getter! It tells New Yorkers that obesity is a social problem warranting government intervention, and not just a personal choice.

Think of the history of cigarette regulation…. Cigarette smoking fell, from an average of 40 percent of the adult population in the 1970s to 19 percent today. There is some grumbling about this massive governmental intrusion into consumer choice, but very little. I certainly am not grumbling about it.

If there is to be a parallel movement to reduce obesity, it has to start somewhere. Maybe it will start with Bloomberg’s container proposal—an attention getter. Maybe it will grow. Maybe someday it will be as effective, and receive as much public approbation, as the anti-smoking movement. [From Posner's post about "Bloomberg, Sugar, and Obesity," at The Becker-Posner Blog, June 18, 2012.]

There you have a reputedly keen “legal mind” in the throes of economistic thinking. It perfectly illustrates a phenomenon about which I write in “A Man for No Seasons“:

[T]oo many economists justify free markets on utilitarian grounds, that is, because free markets produce more (i.e., are more efficient) than regulated markets. This happens to be true, but free markets can and should be justified mainly because they are free, that is, because they allow individuals to pursue otherwise lawful aims through voluntary, mutually beneficial exchanges of products and services. Liberty is a principle, a deep value; economic efficiency is merely a byproduct of adherence to that value.

It is evident that Posner cares not a jot about liberty; efficiency is his god.

Posner’s facile analysis of the costs of obesity is obviously grounded in an aversion to obese persons. He gives his game away by lauding the anti-cigarette campaign, which is really based on two things:

  • an esthetic revulsion
  • the snobbishness of the middle and upper-middle classes toward their “inferiors.”

The parallels to the anti-obesity campaign are so evident that I need say nothing more on this point.

In any event, the real problem is not obesity. It is that Americans have been forced to accept responsibility for other persons’ health. Posner almost grasps this when he writes about “the purchasers of health insurance and the taxpayers who pay for Medicaid and Medicare and social security disability benefits.” These problems would largely disappear if government did not distort the cost of health insurance through mandates and barriers to entry, and did not force some Americans to subsidize the health care of others through Medicare, Medicaid, and various State and local programs. The consumption of junk food, which Posner correctly indicts as a cause of obesity, is undoubtedly subsidized (indirectly) by welfare payments and food stamps.

The growing fraction of Americans who are considered obese is, in fact, a symptom of the ability of competitive markets to deliver more nourishment at a lower real cost. If obesity is concentrated among low-income groups — and I believe that it is — it means that low-income groups, on the whole, are better nourished than they were in the past. But, in typical fashion, paternalists like Posner focus on the aspects of progress that they find distasteful, while ignoring the larger picture.

If Posner were really serious about saving Americans from the consequences of their own behavior, he would be agitating for a ban on automobiles and the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Oh, prohibition was tried and it failed because of its unintended consequences? My, my, what a surprise.

The unintended consequences of a war on obesity should be obvious to Posner — or would be if he were not blinded by paternalism. Regulators, armed with the power to limit what Americans can consume, would inevitably do great mischief to the health and enjoyment that Americans derive from the preparation and consumption of foodstuffs. Regulators love to impose one-size-fits all restrictions on everyone, instead of allowing individuals and firms to choose those courses of action that best suit them. And so — in the name of health and under the influence of various food-Nazis — regulators would move beyond Bloomberg’s simplistic “solution” to truly draconian measures. Almost anything that is believed to be harmful to some persons (e.g., salt, fat, nuts) would be strictly metered if not banned for all persons. (I have no taste for raw fish, but I would be aghast if those who like sashimi were unable to buy it because of the health risk that accompanies its consumption.) Then there are the opportunities for various interest groups (e.g., American cheese manufacturers) to rig the regulatory game in their favor. In short, it is not far down the regulatory slope from a ban on super-size drinks to a ban on foods that most of us find enjoyable, and even healthful.

But Mrs. Grundy — er, Judge Posner and his ilk — will not be deterred. And if the Grundy-Posners succeed in their paternalistic crusade, they will have turned America into a land of grim, granola-crunching Zombies. For that is liberty, Posner-style.

Related posts:
How to Combat Beauty-ism
The Mind of a Paternalist, Revisited
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Externalities and Statism