Commentary Magazine


Topic: nanny state

The Soda Ban and Helicopter-Mayoring

Today the Michael Bloomberg era in New York City drew to a close. Not officially, of course; Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty was inaugurated at the beginning of January. But today it can begin in earnest, and in modest acclamation: the soda ban is dead. And with it exits a style of governing that will most indelibly be remembered for perhaps its greatest flaw: an obnoxious paternalism that told even the city’s starving homeless precisely what they can and cannot consume.

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Today the Michael Bloomberg era in New York City drew to a close. Not officially, of course; Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty was inaugurated at the beginning of January. But today it can begin in earnest, and in modest acclamation: the soda ban is dead. And with it exits a style of governing that will most indelibly be remembered for perhaps its greatest flaw: an obnoxious paternalism that told even the city’s starving homeless precisely what they can and cannot consume.

New York State’s highest court today rejected the final appeal to keep the ban on large sodas in place. The New York Times headline on the story is “City Loses Final Appeal on Limiting Sales of Large Sodas,” but I think we’re all winners here, the city included. Bloomberg is to be commended for some of his policies: the full-throated defense of public safety chief among them. But Bloomberg got caught up in paternalistic social engineering and the soda ban was one of the most invasive–and illegal–results. The Times reports:

In a 20-page opinion, Judge Eugene F. Pigott Jr. of the State Court of Appeals wrote that the city’s Board of Health “exceeded the scope of its regulatory authority” in enacting the proposal, which was championed by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

The decision likely will be seen as a significant defeat for health advocates who have urged state and local governments to actively discourage the consumption of high-calorie beverages, saying the drinks are prime drivers of a nationwide epidemic of obesity.

Two lower courts had already sided against the city, saying it overreached in attempting to prohibit the purchase of sugared drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces, about the size of a medium coffee cup. By a 4 to 2 vote, the justices upheld the earlier rulings.

In that article, however, you can see who Bloomberg’s real constituents were: first and foremost, the media. Proponents of intrusive statist powers are, according to the Times, “health advocates.” Simply because they say so. Even though some of the schemes the “health advocates” have pursued have been shown to produce exactly the opposite result–that is, the population’s choices become less healthy. But as with most liberal projects, the intentions are all that matter. Who wouldn’t want to ban large sodas? Think of the children.

The irony of the Bloomberg administration’s overreach on sugary drinks is that such helicopter-mayoring overshadowed other policies and came to identify him. He’s been replaced by a much more liberal politician, who may actually restore some of Bloomberg’s reputation. Say what you will about Bloomberg’s nanny statism, but he did not acquire his inspiration for public service by watching the Marxist Sandinistas.

Bloomberg’s record on public safety threatens to be undone by de Blasio, whose election ended the era of hugely popular and undeniably successful police commissioner Ray Kelly, after which the police were instructed to stop gun violence by smiling at passersby. It’s too early to say if the resulting recent spike in violent crime is here to stay, but all indications are that de Blasio’s terrible ideas about public safety are just as irresponsible and unserious as they seemed when they began emanating from Planet Brooklyn during the campaign.

The biggest initial threat to de Blasio’s public approval was his staunch opposition to charter schools. De Blasio prefers to delegate his education policy to the unions, with the result that minority students have even fewer opportunities. De Blasio soon realized that trashing proven educational opportunities perhaps struck the wrong “tone.” (We can cut de Blasio some slack here though: it’s doubtful the Sandinistas had anything to say about charter schools, so the mayor was learning on the job.)

De Blasio represents a different kind of progressivism than Bloomberg’s version of city governance. For Bloomberg, that has advantages. Had he been followed by a more conservative mayor, his successor would have simply built on the better policies Bloomberg instituted while quietly scrapping the restrictions on fizzy bubblech. Instead, he’s being followed by an ideologue testing the limits the people will place on his airy radicalism, using New Yorkers as crash-test dummies.

That may leave New Yorkers pining for Bloomberg, but there’s a caveat: de Blasio has so far shown himself responsive to public opinion. If that ends up curtailing his leftist impulses, such populism will distinguish itself from the pompous elitism with which New Yorkers had in recent years been treated.

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The Nanny State Exception: Legal Pot

In yet another indication of the sea change in American culture, President Obama’s comments in a New Yorker interview endorsing legalization of marijuana shocked no one and generated little negative response. Of course, the public is well aware of the president’s personal history with the drug since he wrote in his memoir Dreams From My Father of smoking it frequently as a youngster, as well as using cocaine in high school and college. But there’s little doubt that the lack of any outrage at his statement about legalization reflects a shift toward more libertarian views on social issues. Indeed, a CBS poll released today indicates that for the first time, a majority of Americans now think pot should be legal.

There are legitimate concerns about the effects of repeated use of the drug. Yet most Americans seem to agree with the president that it is no worse than cigarettes and perhaps less dangerous than alcohol. While the 51 percent who now back legalization may not have fully thought out the impact on society of allowing pot into the mainstream, there’s little doubt that the war on drugs to which so much police effort is devoted is unpopular.

But one other aspect of the issue that few have pondered is the liberal hypocrisy that the emerging consensus about legal pot has illuminated. As William Bennett and Christopher Beach pointed out in an incisive Politico magazine article today, there is a question that no one in the media is asking Obama or any other liberal advocate of opening the floodgates to more marijuana: Why do the same people that have sought to outlaw transfats and super-sized sodas while banishing cigarette smokers and seeking to criminalize anything else that can be branded as unhealthy think there’s nothing wrong with a measure that would almost certainly increase the amount of pot smoked in this country?

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In yet another indication of the sea change in American culture, President Obama’s comments in a New Yorker interview endorsing legalization of marijuana shocked no one and generated little negative response. Of course, the public is well aware of the president’s personal history with the drug since he wrote in his memoir Dreams From My Father of smoking it frequently as a youngster, as well as using cocaine in high school and college. But there’s little doubt that the lack of any outrage at his statement about legalization reflects a shift toward more libertarian views on social issues. Indeed, a CBS poll released today indicates that for the first time, a majority of Americans now think pot should be legal.

There are legitimate concerns about the effects of repeated use of the drug. Yet most Americans seem to agree with the president that it is no worse than cigarettes and perhaps less dangerous than alcohol. While the 51 percent who now back legalization may not have fully thought out the impact on society of allowing pot into the mainstream, there’s little doubt that the war on drugs to which so much police effort is devoted is unpopular.

But one other aspect of the issue that few have pondered is the liberal hypocrisy that the emerging consensus about legal pot has illuminated. As William Bennett and Christopher Beach pointed out in an incisive Politico magazine article today, there is a question that no one in the media is asking Obama or any other liberal advocate of opening the floodgates to more marijuana: Why do the same people that have sought to outlaw transfats and super-sized sodas while banishing cigarette smokers and seeking to criminalize anything else that can be branded as unhealthy think there’s nothing wrong with a measure that would almost certainly increase the amount of pot smoked in this country?

As Bennett and Beach point out:

The same president who signed into law a tough federal anti-cigarette smoking bill in 2009 now supports marijuana legalization. The inconsistency and self-contradiction is obvious. In the name of public health, liberals wage political war against genetically modified organisms, French fries and tubby kids, yet stand idly by, or worse, support the legalization of a mind-impairing substance known to be addictive and have deleterious effects on the brain.

The very same year, for example, that Colorado legalized marijuana, the Colorado Senate passed (without a single Republican vote) a ban on trans fats in schools. Are we to believe eating a glazed donut is more harmful than smoking a joint? California has already banned trans fats in restaurants statewide, but now is on the brink of legalizing marijuana statewide come November. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s effort to decriminalize marijuana in New York State, while at the same time supporting a ban on extra-large sodas. A 32-ounce Mountain Dew is bad for you, but pot isn’t?

Bennett and Beach supply no answers for this inconsistency, but the answer isn’t exactly a mystery. The push against cigarettes, sugared drinks and transfats reflects a popular culture that venerates health as the supreme good above almost any other value including sexual ethics. But that same liberal ethos has a soft spot for the baby boomers’ favorite illicit drug that brings back fond memories of the 1960s. Pot is, as the authors rightly note, at least as dangerous as any of the perils that the nanny state brigade seeks to outlaw. But since pot smoking is considered an integral part of pop culture coolness, liberal social engineers regard efforts to stop its spread as the preserve of “fascist” killjoys and other liberal piñatas such as religious conservatives.

Like many Americans, I am ambivalent about the utility of the war on drugs and think regulation of private vices is a lost cause. But what the liberal drive to legalize marijuana reflects isn’t so much an expression of libertarianism as it is an outright affection for a popular drug. If we are to legalize marijuana, the government should also stop telling Americans what they can eat, drink, or smoke. All the arguments we hear from nanny state advocates about the high cost to the public in terms of health care needed for those who suffer the ill effects of tobacco, sugar, and transfats can also be made about pot. It’s time for liberals to choose. If they want to be free to light up a joint, they should to stop telling other people what they can’t do. 

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The Issue is Freedom, Not Soft Drinks

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.”

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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.

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