Moral panic? What moral panic?

By skepticlawyer

Being of a libertarian cast of mind, I’ve often been of the view that all the campaigns about smoking, drugs and obesity are more than a little overdone. It’s not that I think these things are unhealthy — they plainly are. It’s more that I suspect the moral panic is made worse not because we are genuinely concerned about our fellow citizens, but rather because we are worried that our fellow citizens will cost us a motza in the future.

This is because most countries (even the US) have partly or wholly socialized/public medicine, especially for the elderly. Large scale state interventions are costly; if something comes along to drive up those costs in unpredictable (or even predictable) ways, then expect policy wonks to try to figure out ways of holding costs down. If moral panics are part of that, then it is moral panics we shall have…

This, of course, is very unpleasant for the people on the receiving end of the moral panic. First it was drug users, then it was smokers, now it is fatties. I wonder who they will line up next? I can’t help but point out that one of the reasons children do not go outside after school to exercise as much as they used to is — you guessed it — another moral panic about paedophiles. This really is pernicious, because as anyone who has read Freakonomics and The Logic of Life knows, crime rates (particularly violent crimes including sexual assaults) have been dropping like a stone since the early 90s. Our children now live in a much safer world than those children who grew up in the 60s through the 80s. 

In one section of The God Delusion — when he wasn’t hammering religion — Richard Dawkins made the observation (in an aside) that in 50 years time, people will be writing DPhils about the moral panic surrounding paedophilia and adolescent sexuality in our own times, and quietly snickering at us. I suspect he’s right. On the other hand, there is the distinct possibility that — for all their toxic origins — moral panics can ‘work’. That would seem to be the case, if these figures are anything to go by:

The National Heart Forum found evidence that the rate of increase in childhood obesity may be starting to slow.

Its figures suggest that by 2020 the proportion of boys aged 2-11 who will be overweight or obese will be 30% – not 42% as previously predicted.

For girls of the same age the revised prediction is now 27% – down from 48%.

As they say, read the whole thing; it raises some interesting issues.

17 Comments

  1. lilacsigil
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    And then there’s the problem of moral panic hurting the people it’s supposed to help – fat people getting substandard medical treatment (or none at all) because obviously the problem is that they’re fat, not that they’re sick. We’re (almost) all going to get old, and no amount of moral panic will stave off the costs of the final year of life, and that’s by far the most expensive year of care in most cases.

  2. Posted November 4, 2009 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    Some off-the-top-of-the-head alternative explanations for the drop-off in the rate of increase in obesity.

    There is a relationship between economic growth and obesity – so hard times may have straightened more than the pocket book.

    There is also a problem with applying exponential growth to any phenomenon – nothing goes up in a curve forever.

    It might also just be that there is a limit to the number of families that will over-feed and under-exercise their kids, and now that we’ve got the “early adopters” out of the way, obesity is finding it harder to spread.

    So three theses which suggest that the moral panic was never as justified as its proponents would have you think because obesity was never likely to become as widespread as predicted.

  3. conrad
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    I think one reason you see so many moral panic campaigns on public health issues is that it’s generally been the most effective way to change public opinion — people tend to prefer to avoid negative things happening to them over gaining some positive reward — so you always end up with moral-panic campaigns emphasizing negative stuff versus common-sense campaigns (it’s a human decision making bias — one of the ones Kahneman documented and later got the Nobel prize for).
    .
    It’s worthwhile noting that some of these are surely negative overall. All this stranger-danger stuff and so on is no doubt one of the reasons that we now have to have obesity campaigns due to kids being kept indoors, driven everywhere etc. In this case, a few kids having negative events have been replaced by many more that are also having negative events, it’s just most people are not able to see the relationship between the two. It’s also a belief based on misinformation — most really negative things done to kids are done by people they know, not strangers, so driving them to school etc. won’t much difference.

  4. Posted November 4, 2009 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    “It’s more that I suspect the moral panic is made worse not because we are genuinely concerned about our fellow citizens, but rather because we are worried that our fellow citizens will cost us a motza in the future.”

    I’m calling nonsense on that one. For starters I think it’s widely accepted that smokers save the taxpayer money by dying young.

    “I can’t help but point out that one of the reasons children do not go outside after school to exercise as much as they used to is — you guessed it — another moral panic about paedophiles.”

    Until very recently kids in orphanages or kids with exposure to the clergy etc.. could be molested from breakfast to bedtime without the perpetrator having any fear of being caught. In America the Catholic Church alone has in recent years paid out close to US$2billion to the survivors of sexual abuse. Kids are now much more likely to report family members etc who abuse them. You prefer the old way, I prefer the new way- we’ll have to agree to disagree on that.

    I also note with amusement that you’ve contradicted one of your previous statements of theory. You said that the State cannot change public morality whereas I said the State can on some matters. Today it is considered “wrong” (ie immoral) to smoke around kids, smoke when others are eating and so on. You call this moral panic, I call it common sense, once again we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    From a consequentialist perspective the sum total of human welfare has been advanced with minimal collateral damage. I call that a win.

  5. jc
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    You said that the State cannot change public morality whereas I said the State can on some matters. Today it is considered “wrong” (ie immoral) to smoke around kids, smoke when others are eating and so on.

    Interesting… and you believe the reasons are not because of changing attitudes through time, but because the state has told us.

  6. drscroogemcduck
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    i think predictions for 2-11 year olds in 2020 give a wide scope for fudging.

  7. Posted November 4, 2009 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Moral panics aren’t just the tools of politicians, but big business, according to Ars Technical in "Big content using moral panics to change copyright law" Paltry’s analysis of fear as a political tool applies to all forms of moral panic incitement:

    To Patry, this is little more than fear-mongering, the creation of moral panics that are attached to “folk devils” like the “evil file-swapper” or the “dirty pirate” who are stealing American jobs. “Folk devils are a tool to accomplish social, political or commercial objectives, and there is no better way to gain society’s acceptance of such control than through the manufacture of fear,” he writes, “which explains the copyright industries’ regular use of it.”

  8. Posted November 4, 2009 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I’d read Dawkins’s comments in context, Mel, for the simple reason that it places him in the rather unusual position of defending the Catholic Church (yes, you read right). Among other things, he points out that the survivors of common or garden physical abuse (which was much more destructive, and more sustained) have received not a skerrick in compensation. It is an interesting argument and not one that I’d heard before, but the data backs him up.

    Also, most people do not know that detail about smokers and are flummoxed when told (one of my tutors for the BCL helped produce the original research showing that smokers cark it young, thereby saving us money). He has been consistently amazed by this lack of awareness.

    And, as I pointed out by tagging the post ‘media’, the moral panic in this case may start with the state, but it grows no legs unless the media pick it up and run with it. Dave’s example of the strong desire among corporates (in this case) to produce a moral panic about downloaders and file sharers is a good one. It’s gone nowhere, fast, because they haven’t been able to get anyone outside their own charmed circle on board.

  9. Posted November 4, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] said “It’s gone nowhere, fast, because they haven’t been able to get anyone outside their own charmed circle on board.”
    That suggests that legislatures are in the charmed circle given the fairly strong measures around the world against fileswappers… especially in France. These measures include three ACCUSATIONS and your internet is cut in a measure in NZ (which I think was implemented and then unimplemented after massive protest)

  10. Posted November 4, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Dave, it’s in the realm of unenforceable law. Quite a lot of laws are like that, and it’s why they should be repealed forthwith. I know it is difficult to grasp, but just because a law is passed does not mean it is honoured in anything other than the breach. Drug laws are the classic example (and are the principle reason why we are so overpoliced; the law doesn’t work, so all legislatures can do to attempt to enforce an unworkable law is throw money and warm bodies at it).

    The various internet filesharing laws are classic examples of the type. If you’re really interested, hop on the relevant French government website and see if you can find them admitting to how many prosecutions they’ve brought. Then express that as a percentage of the French population, controlling for those unlikely to be filesharing (the elderly, for example).

    I don’t like these laws either, but only partly because I think that the heyday of intellectual property protection may well be over (yes, we’re probably going to go back to the days of companies and govts spying on each other or trying to reverse engineer good technology). I mainly dislike them because they are attempts to use the law in ways for which it is ill-suited.

  11. Posted November 4, 2009 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    yes, we’re probably going to go back to the days of companies and govts spying on each other or trying to reverse engineer good technology

    Uh, we never actually left those days behind. The beef is now that with a bit of research and a $1000/£500 home computer individuals can do it too and that’s just PATENTLY unacceptable!

  12. Miss Chelsea
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    What REALLY REALLY bugs me is that the balance of risk is so out of whack… I mean people are driving their children to school in large out of fear of a miniscule risk to their safety, and thus putting them in far more immediate risk from large cars running them over, not to mention the almost certain risks from insufficient physical activity.

    And we subject children to (relatively ineffective) scare campaigns to reduce the (relatively small) risk of drug use, and provide them with perfect conditions for mental health problems like severe anxiety.

    A young relative of mine was recently in tears because her parents were “going to die” because they “drink and smoke and do drugs”. It’s just inhumane, I’m going to be objecting if anyone tries that on my kids. F*ck life education, it’s just evil.

    By the way, my Mum had the best antidote to smoking – apart from insisting that it was gross and made you smell gross and made kissing you gross, she also agreed to give each of us $1000 if she found no evidence that we were smokers by the time we turned 18. She’d read that if you don’t smoke by the time you’re 18, you’re far less likely to take it up. Simple.

  13. Miss Chelsea
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    er – apologies to Conrad, I must have skipped your comment, and couldn’t have put it better myself

  14. Miss Chelsea
    Posted November 4, 2009 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    And lilacsigil – the “blame the victim” approach to avoid responsibility is by no means new in social policy.

  15. Posted November 4, 2009 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] = giggle.
    [email protected] : The french laws are pretty recent. I’m suspecting there’ll be Brussels action against them.

    (And if anyone wants to see my thoughts on patents, my submission to the gene patents inquiry is a good start. I’d place maths in the discovery rather than the invention category.

    And on reverse engineering good technology and patents? You cannot go past Australian Innovation Patent for a Circular Transportation Facilitation Device (something that might give DEM inspiration).

  16. Posted November 5, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    By the way, my Mum had the best antidote to smoking – apart from insisting that it was gross and made you smell gross and made kissing you gross, she also agreed to give each of us $1000 if she found no evidence that we were smokers by the time we turned 18. She’d read that if you don’t smoke by the time you’re 18, you’re far less likely to take it up. Simple.

    Right, I’m nominating Miss Chelsea’s mum for the Economics Nobel… a nuanced understanding of incentives, I think!

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