Addiction occurs, I have been taught, when one is obviously spending more time, energy and money on something than is good for one--so much so that it is becoming impossible to function normally in life. In its classical period, I would argue, western civilization, and particularly American civilization, recognized addictive behaviors as dangerous both to individuals and to society as a whole and attempted to restrict or even ban them, most notably with prohibition, an attempt to stop alcohol and alcoholism. That failed miserably, of course, but that does not mean that we do not need ways to keep certain behaviors within reasonable bounds. That is not happening in the United States today. Leading sectors of our economy are encouraging dangerous addictions, with very serious consequences for our physical and emotional health.
Because so many highly educated Americans in blue states have learned to eat healthily, the newspapers have remarkably little to say about the nation's most dangerous addiction, unhealthy food. Sugar, fat and salt contribute to diabetes, which is epidemic, and heart disease--and they are the key ingredients of the processed food and drink industry. Soda sizes and packages have been getting bigger, not smaller, as time goes by. Childhood obesity is at all-time high levels. An excellent documentary, Food, Inc, went into this in some detail some years ago. Some municipalities have made some effort to limit soda sizes, for instance, but without much success. Things do not seem to be getting better on this front.
Drugs have been a major problem in the US for more than half a century, but the last thirty years witnessed something new. Big pharma, looking for new products, decided to counter the opioid market with new, more powerful, legal painkillers. Prescription drug overdoses killed about 3000 Americans in 1999 but grew to 12000 in 2006, and have continued to increase to about 15,000 a year since, costing about a quarter of a million lives from 1999 through 2020. Pharma also prefers to develop long-term treatments for chronic diseases--another form of addiction, really--rather than to try to cure serious infections with new antibiotics. It is clearly absurd to expect the free market to design the cheapest and most efficient system of health care. We have the opposite.
Legal gambling has grown enormously in the last four decades or so. State lotteries, which notoriously find their market among the poorest Americans, now take more than $20 billion a year from the pockets of those who can afford them the least. Casinos, confined to Nevada in my youth, have spread to nearly every state in the union. take in an estimated $53 billion. The Supreme Court has taken down the barrier to legal sports betting, and the baseball, football and basketball leagues are actively encouraging it as well. Sports betting is now up to $4 billion a year and rising fast, and cable sports stations and talk radio focus on it too.
Pornography, ironically, does not seem to make anyone a great deal of money any more, so much is available free on the internet. It is nonetheless addicting a significant number of people--including even a few women--who are so dependent on it that they can no longer have normal sex. It is only one of several major addictions found on the internet. Social media is having a dreadful effect on the mental health of young people, especially girls. Huge numbers of children, adolescents and adults are addicted to their phones. And social media obviously creates an addiction to outrage and anger, fueled every day by millions of memes. It leaves more and more people less and less time for serious intellectual pursuits or calm thought.
Behind most of these addictions lies the free market. The nation has done better when we had the wisdom and the courage to realize that the market can do us serious harm if we do not limit its freedom in certain critical areas. In the nineteenth century foreign observers like Tocqueville remarked upon the strictness of American morals (except among the southern aristocracy) and the moderaton of American habits. Those qualities are far less in evidence today. Now it seems to be impossible to limit the production of any good or the provision of any service that a lot of people want. The consequences have not been good, and I predict that they will continue to mount.