I count exactly one benefit to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed ban on some soft drink containers larger than 16 ounces: It has smoked out some of the worst public policy thinking this side of the cash-for-clunkers brainfart. Jacob Sullum has previously pointed out New Yorker writer Alex Koppelman's do-something hi-five for Bloomberg's "incorrigible nannyism," and evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman's startling conclusion that "we have evolved to need coercion."
Add to that list The New Republic's featured columnist, Timothy Noah, in a no-really-he's-not-joking column headlined "Nanny Dearest: In defense of Bloomberg's war on soda." Some lowlights (and you really should read the whole thing for more):
The truth is that there's nothing inherently wrong with paternalistic government or, in the harsher, feminized shorthand of its detractors, the "nanny state." Parents and nannies can be good or bad. No adult likes to be told how to live his life, but most of us benefit from baby authoritarianism far more than we'd like to admit. […]
What about when the nanny state instructs us to behave in accordance with its views of morality? I disagree with conservative aspirations to install the nanny state in my bedroom, but I wouldn't necessarily begrudge the state its power to play moral cop elsewhere. I approve of the government prohibition against the selling of organs, and I would never want the government to stop discouraging illicit drug use and prostitution (though I might quibble with its methods). These prohibitions all constitute the government helping to define the nation's collective values, which is entirely legitimate.
Public health paternalism can be carried too far, but in the current anti-regulatory political environment, I don't waste a lot of time worrying about that. […]
Indeed, the 16-ounce limit might actually enhance individual liberty by compelling restaurants and bottlers to sell soda in the smaller quantities that people often want but can't get. It might become possible once again to order a Coke at a movie theater in something less than a Jacuzzi-sized tub. After all, the government isn't the only actor imposing its will on Americans today; corporations boss them around quite a bit, and, unlike the government, they seldom have to answer to anyone but their shareholders for it. When their bullying gets rough, it sure can help to have a tough nanny in your corner.
The organ-sales prohibition that Noah actively endorses contributes to around 18 deaths per day of people waiting for a kidney transplant. The government's discouragement of illicit drugs that Noah supports has eviscerated a Fourth Amendment that liberals at least used to pretend caring about, while stuffing America's prisons to shameful, world-historical levels. Prostitutes working in black markets suffer more violence and have more unprotected sex (with cops!) than in the few places where it's legal. The alleged "anti-regulatory political environment" we live in today is overseen by a president who A) replaced a president who had been the biggest significant regulator since Richard Nixon, and who then B) passed gigantic pieces of legislation (Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, most notably) that gave unprecedented amounts of future rule-writing to the regulatory agencies he oversees.
I'll let commenters chew on the other scraps.
Noah points out in his column that the left has (thankfully, in his view) largely abandoned anti-authoritarianism, while the right has learned to love paternalism. As evidence of the latter, just read the headline of David Frum's latest blast of reform conservatism, "Bloomberg's visionary move against obesity." A brief excerpt:
Good for Bloomberg. Obesity is America's most important public health problem, and the mayor has led the way against it. This latest idea may or may not yield results. But it is already raising awareness. […]
But if a restraint on soda serving size will not do everything, it may still do something. Or possibly not. The idea may fail. The idea is an experiment, and most experiments fail. We learn from failure how to design a better effort next time. And when we do at least succeed in this difficult struggle for public health, we will all owe New York's visionary mayor our thanks for leading the way.
This is exactly the type of unscientific, detail-free, big-government WTFery that I attempted to describe in "The Simpletons: David Brooks, Thomas L. Friedman, and the banal authoritarianism of do-something punditry."