Nanny Dearest: In defense of Bloomberg’s war on soda.
IN LATE MAY, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he would impose a 16-ounce limit on servings of “sugary drinks”—sodas, sports and energy drinks, sweetened tea or coffee, and artificially sweetened fruit beverages—on the grounds that they contribute to the nation’s obesity epidemic, which in turn elevates the incidence of diabetes and other diseases. Bloomberg previously banned smoking—which, of course, causes cancer and heart disease, and increases the cancer risk even for nonsmokers who inhale secondhand smoke—first in indoor gathering spaces and later in outdoor public spaces like parks and beaches. Hizzoner has also banned artificial trans fats from restaurants (they raise your cholesterol); required restaurant chains to include calorie counts on their menus (obesity again); and strongly urged restaurants and food processors to reduce the amount of salt in food products by up to 40 percent (salt raises your blood pressure).
These policies have been denounced, as one would expect, by restaurants, food companies, and professional curmudgeons on the right. (Fox News’ John Stossel: “In a free society, I should be able to determine my own diet.”) But they’ve also been questioned from less predictable quarters. “It seems to be more on the punitive side of things,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democrat, said about the 16-ounce limit. “I am all for promoting public health,” said Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart of the soda proposal. “But Mr. Mayor, this plan makes your asinine look big.”
Bloomberg’s health policies are straightforwardly paternalistic, and paternalism is an idea nobody feels comfortable with. Indeed, it was loathed by the left before it was loathed by the right. Colonialism was essentially paternalism on a global scale. The 1960s counterculture brought an end to college parietals—the prohibition against a girl spending the night in a boy’s dorm room or vice versa—and never took government prohibitions on recreational drug use very seriously. Listen today to Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 song “Alice’s Restaurant” and you may be surprised by how politically incorrect it has become. Yes, it mocks the Vietnam draft, but it also lampoons—as yet another petty imposition on individual freedom—environmental regulations concerning the disposal of solid waste (known in those days as “garbage”).
The left’s aversion applied to all sources of paternalistic authority: government, corporations, priests, university administrators, and, of course, parents. When the virus jumped to the right it mutated into an aversion only to government authority (with exemptions for the military and police) and granted blanket amnesty to private businesses, religious authorities, mom, and dad.
Yet, even as liberals and conservatives profess to hate the idea of government paternalism, both practice it. Liberals support restrictions on harmful things individuals do to their bodies, like smoking, driving without a seat belt, and riding a motorcycle without a helmet. Conservatives support restrictions on actions they deem harmful to the soul, like having abortions, using contraception, and marrying a person of the same sex.