Jacob Weisberg of Slate Magazine has some interesting observations regarding Mayor Bloomberg’s campaigns to ban smoking, transfats and soda from NYC and warns how it could end up trapping over-reaching progressives.
Legal and political thinkers spend a lot of time puzzling about how to protect people from their own bad decisions without infringing on their rights. Obama’s regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein, is the co-author, with his University of Chicago colleague Richard Thaler, of an influential recent book called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, which grounds paternalism in behavioral economics. If, as evidence suggests, people are not profit-maximizing actors of neoclassical theory, then it’s reasonable to point them toward choices that serve their own unappreciated interests. Sunstein’s libertarian or “soft” paternalism argues for policies that promote better decisions without diminishing personal freedom by changing the default setting, such as by requiring workers to opt out of rather than into 401(k) programs.
Yet soft paternalism can’t cover all or even most of the instances in which society accepts infringements on Mill’s principle, such as motorcycle helmet laws, seat belt laws, laws against selling unpasteurized milk, efforts to block discrimination in private clubs, and restrictions on recreational drugs and prostitution. In these cases, there is little pretext of preventing harm to others. The justification is simply that some personal choices are just unacceptable.
I see the question in three parts: first is the obvious one – unacceptable to whom? Mr. Weisberg talks about how “unacceptable” has different meanings for different regimes, and how these cultural biases can result in some interesting juxtapositions; banning cigarette smoke while advocating a more lenient and permissive attitude towards marijuana, for example.
The argument for taxing sugary sodas is persuasive on the surface. The San Francisco Chronicle quotes a leading researchers and their best estimates regarding the effectiveness of a one cent per ounce tax on sodas.
A one-cent-an-ounce tax on sugary drinks is “the single most effective approach we have,” said Yale University researcher Kelly Brownell.
He estimates that the tax would cut consumption by 10 percent, reduce medical costs by $50 billion in a decade and raise $150 billion over the period.
A broader tax on junk food could raise $500 billion over 10 years, University of Virginia scholars Carolyn Engelhard and Arthur Garson and the Urban Institute’s Stan Dorn said in a recent study.
Although the allure of the savings is clear, the reduction in consumption is not a guarenteed outcome. Doing a quick inventory of my own personal feelings, a penny per ounce is .72 cents per six pack. That is not a price increase that would stop me from buying a six pack of soda, though it would annoy me and make me curse Congress. Would this indeed be effective in moving the demand curve, or will it be absorbed as a nuisance or obliterated by retailer sales or the poor people moving down teh soda chain, say from Dr. Pepper to a store-branded generic?
The second and more problematic issue is the quandary that we find ourselves in as parents; risk is out there, and it tends to be balloon-like in that if you push in on one side, it bulges out on the other. So you ban smoking and people drink, you cut out trans-fats, but they still eat with abandon. How many ways can you protect people from themselves, and is micromanaging basic lifestyle choices healthy? If we go on the assumption that we can legislate core choices that people make regarding their health, is it the right thing to do, or are we encouraging them to abdicate their basic human responsibilities and simply become wards of the state?
I’m overweight, and I make poor choices about my health – I’m aware and I know that at my age, there are going to be two roads. I know which one I want to be on, and I appreciate that if I want to enjoy my children over the long term, only one choice is sustainable. I’m a man – I should be the one to make this choice and live my consequences. This is the basis of every free society, and all the world’s great religions. Those of us who believe in such things believe that we have a choice – we choose sorrow or salvation and the gate to salvation is narrow and the path is long. Why does God allow suffering in the world? Because He allows us to make our choices, unlike the angels and the animals. We choose our actions, and we choose our responses to the consequences inflicted on us by the poor choices of our fellow humans.
Anthony Burgess explored this theme in A Clockwork Orange and Stanley Kubrick illustrated it beautifully when after the protagonist is “treated” such that he reacted with violent illness to any exposure, he is presented to the prison chaplain as the perfect Christian. The chaplain is dismayed and taken aback by the suggestion. His answer is the third problem with curtailing freedom in favor of a maternalistic nanny-state.
“When a man ceases to choose, he ceases to be a man.”