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Conservatives are taking aim at the field of public health, targeting its efforts to understand and control environmental and social causes of disease. Richard Epstein and others contend that these efforts in fact undermine people’s health and well-being by eroding people’s incentives to create economic value. Public health, they argue, should stick to its traditional task—the struggle against infectious diseases. Because markets are not up to the task of controlling the transmission of infectious disease, Epstein says, coercive government action is required. But market incentives, not state action, he asserts, represent our best hope for controlling the chronic illnesses that are the main causes of death in industrialized nations. In this article, we assess Epstein’s case. We consider his claims about the market’s capabilities and limits, the roles of personal choice and social influences in spreading disease, and the relationship between health and economic inequality. We argue that Epstein’s critique of public health overreaches, oversimplifies, and veils his political and moral preferences behind seemingly objective claims about the economics of disease control and the determinants of disease spread. Public health policy requires political and moral choices, but these choices should be transparent.

Publication Citation

46 Persp. Biology & Med. S160-S175 (Supp. 2003)