New York City Mayor Bloomberg struck what he claims is another blow for the cause of public health yesterday by announcing a ban on the sale of all sugared drinks in containers that measure larger than 16 ounce servings. Because soft drinks are widely believed to be part of the obesity epidemic, he believes it is his duty to try and stop the citizens of Gotham from harming themselves. As the New York Times reports:
“Obesity is a nationwide problem, and all over the United States, public health officials are wringing their hands saying, ‘Oh, this is terrible,’ ” Mr. Bloomberg said in an interview on Wednesday in the Governor’s Room at City Hall.
“New York City is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something,” he said. “I think that’s what the public wants the mayor to do.”
But even if we concede that drinking too much soda is an unhealthy practice, what the mayor again fails to understand is that the purpose of government is to protect freedom, not to heedlessly infringe upon it merely for the sake of what some people may believe is doing good. Like the city’s ban on the use of trans fats and draconian restrictions on smoking, the new soda regulations are an intolerable intrusion into the private sphere. Though the mayor seems to relish his reputation as the embodiment of the concept of the so-called nanny state, what is going on here is something far more sinister than a billionaire version of Mary Poppins presiding at Gracie Mansion. Rather, it is yet another installment of what Jonah Goldberg rightly termed “liberal fascism.”
Though the term “fascist” has become merely a left-wing epithet aimed at non-liberals, its historic roots are in a movement that above all saw the ends as justifying the means. The Italian fascist state of Benito Mussolini earned a brief popularity around the world for “making the trains run on time” because his regime appeared to make a chaotic political culture more efficient. But the price paid in terms of freedom for the train timetable was very high. Though Bloomberg is no Mussolini, the underlying principle here is the same. He believes it is his duty to solve any problem even if it means expanding the scope of government to govern personal diet.
The point here is not to defend drinking excessive amounts of soda, consuming trans fats or smoking. It is to point out that these are personal choices that cannot reasonably be interpreted to fall under the purview of municipal government. The danger is that the end of personal liberty is not usually accomplished in one broad stroke but is lost by a process of erosion whereby seemingly sensible measures gradually accumulate to create a new reality wherein the once broad protection of the law for private behavior is destroyed piecemeal.
Those who defend the mayor’s actions claim the medical costs of the illnesses caused by drinking, eating and smoking are affected in one way or another by the public and that gives government the right to regulate and/or ban such items. But there is a difference between personal behavior that poses a direct threat to public safety — such as drivng while under the influence of alcohol — and those that constitute minute and indirect contributions to serious problems. If the mayor is allowed to ban private diet or health choices under the principle that he has the right to “do something” about anything that is a public concern, then there is literally no limit to his power to infringe on personal liberty or to intrude on commerce.
It may well be that Americans ought not to drink 20 ounce soda bottles any more than they should smoke. But if we are to live in a free country, they must have the right to do so. Those choices have consequences, but so does giving government the power to take those choices away from us. As grievous as our nation’s health problems may be, the damage from the latter may far outweigh it.