Today New York City’s Board of Health approved a ban on the sale of large sodas and sugary drinks in many establishments. It is, as the New York Times pointed out, the first such law enacted in the country. The intent of this initiative pursued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg is to combat the epidemic of obesity in this country. But good intentions have always paved the road to hell or, more important, the path to tyranny. Bloomberg is right to say that New Yorkers ought to be watching their diets. He’s dead wrong in attempting to use the ubiquitous power of the state to impose his ideas about what they should be eating and drinking on them.
The mayor has said he doesn’t want to take away anyone’s right to drink as much soda as they want, but rather his goal is, as he said on the “Today” show, to “force you to understand” that what you are doing is wrong. But at the heart of the latest instance of the mayor’s attempt to become New York’s nanny-in-chief, is an idea put forward in the New York Times by one of his measure’s supporters. As filmmaker Casey Neistat wrote on Saturday, the issue is “that some people just aren’t responsible enough to feed themselves.” That is exactly the frame of reference of Bloomberg on this and all such measures where he and other do-gooders seek to govern the lives of fellow citizens. It is not that they oppose individual freedom per se but that they think the rest of us are too sick or too stupid to be allowed to exercise it freely.
The justification presented for this unprecedented government interference in both commerce and individual behavior is that the public and the government bear much of the cost of the illnesses that derive from obesity. But the logic of this argument breaks down when you realize that such reasoning would allow government to interfere in just about any sphere of private behavior including procreation. That is exactly the point that the Communist regime in Beijing has given in defense of its tyrannical one-child policy and the forced abortions that are performed in order to enforce it.
One needn’t paint the billionaire mayor as a would-be totalitarian to understand that a government that can tell you how much soda to drink or fat to eat because the sugar in your super-sized cup will eventually cost it something is one that can, in theory, tell you to do or not do just anything else you can think of.
America’s grand experiment with do-gooder government early in the 20th century was no less well intentioned than that undertaken by Bloomberg and his food and drink police. Indeed, the prohibition of the sale of alcohol addressed a far more urgent health problem facing the nation then (and now) as well as one that cost it, even in that era of small government, a lot of money. But Americans soon learned that legislating personal choices in such a manner is always a colossal mistake that tells us more about our faults than our virtues.
Personal choices, such as the consumption of sugar, do not fall under any reasonable definition of government responsibility. However serious our obesity problem may be, it cannot be solved by government fiat. Indeed, it isn’t likely that there will be a single less fat person in New York because of Bloomberg’s power play. But there will be a little less individual freedom in the city and elsewhere if his noxious idea spreads. The issue here is freedom, not sugar or obesity. The damage from this infringement on the fundamental values that are the foundation of democracy will hurt us far more than the extra few ounces of soda that the mayor begrudges New York’s citizens.