As you probably know, the City of New York is currently in the midst of one of its periodical tussles about the so-called “nanny state,” this time in response to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initiative, announced at the end of May, to prohibit the sale of certain sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces at public venues such as restaurants, movie theaters and sports arenas.
The casus belli for this, more or less, is that New Yorkers are so endemically fat that it has become necessary and proper for the government to nudge them away from the major sources of their ill health.
The “nanny state” debate Mayor Bloomberg has resurrected is a fascinating one, harkening back to the earliest days of the republic. Beneath all its specifics, the question it begs is simply this: Is the liberty and autonomy of an individual person more important than promoting the general welfare of the public at large? It is a clash of competing American values that might never be resolved—the only type of fight worth having.
Helpfully, Mayor Bloomberg’s philosophy about the role of government is crystal clear: It exists to help citizens make healthy lifestyle choices. “Obesity is a nationwide problem,” he recently intoned, asserting, “New York City is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something. I think that’s what the public wants the mayor to do.”
A necessary question we might ask, then, is when—if ever—does it become necessary for government to actually make such health-based decisions for you? What should the “doing something” entail? Should New York have the responsibility or authority to legislate healthy behavior?
The libertarian wing in this argument says no, and I am nominally tempted to agree. Indeed, the philosophical case against a soda ban essentially writes itself: America is a land of liberty, and its citizens are free to consume anything their hearts desire, including products that will cause those hearts irreparable harm. Freedom of choice means nothing if it does not include the freedom to make choices that are wrong, unhealthy or stupid.
Past public health initiatives in America’s largest city—prohibitions on trans fats and smoking in public places, to name two—held libertarians in a bind, as one could (and did) argue that the substances in question harmed innocent bystanders, and therefore were fair game for regulation.
Such an argument seems considerably less tenable here. “Think about the children” is probably the strongest case one can make along these lines, since childhood obesity—undoubtedly aided by excessive quantities of high fructose corn syrup—is a uniquely challenging epidemic that may well require intervention by forces greater than mom and dad.
For his part, Bloomberg (with his supporters) has taken pains to insist this current proposed ban does not qualify as the kind of intrusive, liberty-smashing, government strong arm-ism his accusers fear. You could, he points out, simply purchase two 16-ounce beverages instead of one, and voila! Like beer-swilling at a ballgame, Coke-swilling at a movie house would become a simple art of double-fisting. (Presumably while balancing a hot dog and bag of popcorn on your head.)
In intent, this proposal might properly be called behavioral engineering. The idea, after all, is precisely to make the act of supersizing one’s Coke fix so cumbersome, such a pain in the patootie, that most people will decide it isn’t worth the effort and stick with 16 ounces or (God forbid) order a Diet Coke instead.
For not particularly hiding or finessing this evilly ingenious scheme— “[W]e’re forcing you to understand that you have to make the conscious decision to go from one cup to another,” he put it to MSNBC—Bloomberg deserves a modicum of credit. To make this baldly paternalistic appeal, knowing the great number of citizens who find it insufferable, requires a gravitas and intellectual honesty other leaders might do well to adopt.
In the meantime, New York is left with an inconvenient new restriction on its drinking habits (should the proposition pass, as it likely will), which we can only hope will achieve its desired ends. The only thing worse than a dumb idea is a dumb idea that doesn’t work.