Nick Gillespie noted earlier today an op-ed in the New York Times by Sarah Conly, author of the wonderfully titled “Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism,” arguing in favor of what else but the nanny state. Conly asks why there’s “so much fuss” over Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to regulate soda sizes. “[S]ometimes we need to be stopped from doing foolish stuff,” Conly argues, because we’re not always rational (stop the presses!). And the government, for Conly, is the agent to do the stopping. It seems she adopts a “we are the government” stance, at one point saying the government’s supposed to “help us get where we want to go.” But if people are prone to be irrational, and the government is made up of people, why wouldn’t it be prone to irrationality? The soda ban itself, after all, is irrational; Jacob Sullum pointed out even the mayor doesn’t think it’ll work.
Nevertheless it’s nothing new for Bloomberg to support a policy despite evidence to the contrary, like with stop and frisk. The attempted soda ban is part of a policy basket that includes reducing salt in food products and banning transfats. Its supporters argue that curbing public health costs justifies the policy. As Nick Gillespie noted earlier today, a debate on the soda ban between MeMe Roth (pro) and Ann Coulter (against) featured Coulter asking if a soda ban were acceptable, why not ban sodomy, which also has associated health risks? Bloomberg himself, however, has turned a version of this hypothetical into a real example. Earlier this month, while the city prepared for the new soda regulations, the city also rolled out an ad campaign against teen pregnancy. It didn’t ban teen pregnancies, it didn’t introduce any new regulations to try to nudge the teen pregnancy statistics done. Yet some of the same people in favor of the soda ban were aghast by the notion of the teen pregnancy campaign. “This ad doesn't provide info about safe sex or how to attain low-cost or free birth control,” a Yahoo blogger wrote, calling the ads insulting and enraging. Planned Parenthood agreed, calling birth control an effective strategy against teen pregnancy. Yet New York City’s government does promote and subsidize birth control and contraceptives as well. A campaign to distribute Plan B in public schools was met with resistance, but as is the Bloomberg way, went full speed ahead anyway. The New York Post revealed the program was far more widespread than the Bloomberg administration initially acknowledged. 12,721 doses were distributed to girls as young as 14 last school year. With the administration pursuing this kind of program, it could use the same arguments deployed in favor of a soda ban for measures meant to discourage teen pregnancy and even teen sex.
After all, as Conly argued, sometimes we don’t know what’s best for us. Liberals use the argument of need to support regulations and bans ranging from soda to guns. Who needs a 32 ounce soda at dinner? Who needs a so-called assault weapon? But what do people really need? A hovel and some gruel. Everything else is part of life’s rich accoutrement, our desire (need) for more knowledge, more material goods, more experiences, more emotions. The pursuit of happiness includes guns, soda, sex, transfats, tobacco, narcotics, all depending on the eye of the beholder. Conly invokes John Stuart Mill’s “no harm” principle, conflating it with the idea of the rational man (as Nick Gillespie noted). The no harm principle, of course, works independent of the idea of a rational man. It gains new strength in the absence of one, in fact. Despite the effort by nanny state apologists to attribute consensus to their policy prescriptions, the controversy each stirs belies that argument. Given enough time, every apologist will learn the lesson at some point, when the state large enough to stop the behavior he or she disapproves is set to the purpose of stopping behavior the nanny state apologist sees nothing wrong. And if we keep bring up how ridiculous the contrary notion of a benevolent nanny state formed by a weak-willed populace is, maybe we won’t have to see how bad it has to get for people to start thinking rationally about government power.