Commentary Magazine


No Pop for the Poor

New York City’s mayor wants the federal government to say food stamps can’t be used to buy soda – a story that is less about the technicalities of welfare and more about political paternalism.

Now, there’s a strong argument to be made that if the government is setting the table and preparing the dinner, it should be able to choose the menu. But that argument is not being made; on the contrary, those who want soda omitted from the items obtainable by food stamps are making the link between health and public spending.

The New York Times ran an op-ed today by city and state health commissioners. In it, they point out that “some 57 percent of adults in New York City and 40 percent of children in New York City public schools are overweight or obese” and that “one in eight adult city residents now has diabetes, and the disease is nearly twice as common among poorer New Yorkers as it is among wealthier ones.”

Pay close attention to their following conclusion: “Obesity-related illnesses cost New York State residents nearly $8 billion a year in medical costs, or $770 per household. All of us pay the price through higher taxes.”

This story could be seen as some microscopic foreshadowing of what’s to come for everybody, not just for the surprisingly high number of food-stamp recipients — 1.7 million in New York City alone, or 35 percent of the city’s residents (who, by the way, will still be able to buy that soda on their own buck).

Granted, in New York City, two-thirds of the population does not rely on government to fill the pantry. But once everyone’s health care is a public-spending issue, it is logical to assume that, at least to some extent, private behaviors will be up for public scrutiny; they have become a public cost issue.

Never mind Tocqueville’s warning about the democratic danger of preferring comfort to freedom. For those willing to sacrifice some degree of liberty for a government that ensures their well-being, here’s a little reminder that paternalism isn’t always so comfortable. In addition to saying yes, it also says no sometimes.