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Where there is no collective conscience – at least when it comes to social matters – there can be no workable paternalism. Matters such as health become secondary to choice – it is a consequence rather than a state of mind. New York’s Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is certainly finding this to be the case with his campaign to impose limits on soda containers larger than sixteen ounces. “I’ve got to defend my children, and yours, and do what’s right to save lives. Obesity kills. There’s no question about that” (New York Times, Mar 11).
The sentiment Bloomberg faces is quite something else. If it is the choice to consume obscene amounts of sugar in ungainly cans, then so be it. Companies can profit happily without the encumbrances placed by conscience. People have a “choice,” a term as empty as it is disingenuous. They are sovereign, they decide.
Last week, Justice Milton A. Tingling of the State Supreme Court of Manhattan showed how little time he had for controls he deemed “arbitrary and capricious”. The judge found that the Board of Health, appointed by Bloomberg, had overreached its powers in approving the plan and might well “create an administrative leviathan”. The wars of paternalism were heating up, just as they did when the Affordable Health Care Act was upheld by the slimmest of majorities – 5-4 in the US Supreme Court.
Bloomberg does have the science on his side. The politics, however, is another story. Adam Bosworth, co-founder of Keas, is adamant that the mayor did get it right. “Sixteen ounces of sodas may harm you. Overall, experts say that we should be eating between 1750 and 2100 calories a day, and of these calories, the normal recommendation is that men restrict themselves to 150 calories of sugar each day and women to 100 calories of sugar” (Huffington Post, Mar 13). But such forecasts of doom and calamity are not necessarily sufficient to justify nanny-state morality in the name of the collective good.
As suggested by Cass R. Sunstein in the New York Review of Books (Mar 7), Americans, or at least a great number, follow the dictates of J. S. Mill in that sense. Private choices are simply not the preserve of a state, even if they result in harm. Power should only be exercised over individuals “to prevent harm to others.” The good of a person, “either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant.” Mill’s reasoning was that individuals are the best placed to make their decisions.
Problematically, such choices do not occur in a vacuum. Health concerns, given their nexus with the state pocket, not to mention those of tax payers, make decisions regarding food murkier. As obesity adds some $190 billion to annual national health care costs, it is only fitting that some policy makers have decided to take control. In a buccaneering state of pure medical private insurance, this might be less of an issue.
The other issue here is that the choices are often ill-informed. People, as Sunstein notes, are often overly optimistic about their decisions, and stuck in a permanent state of “presentism” – the ever present now, rather than the future, which is but a “foreign country”. Sara Conly’s Against Autonomy, which Sunstein reviews, bolsters paternalism and gives it a rationale. It is a discomforting premise, suggesting incapacity and imbecility on the part of the human race. “We are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.”
Decisions are constantly being made in matters of food consumption on the basis of inadequate information. The recent “horse in the lasagne” scandal in the United Kingdom showed that all too starkly. Ignorance on matters of what we eat, the origins of such food, and the nutritional content, is all too present. That said, Conly’s argument veers dangerously to the other side – a paternalistic state, by its very nature, presumes idiocy and incapacity. If you cannot decide, we shall do it for you. More than that, it assumes an omniscient state, the all wise entity that knows what’s good for you. More than the size of soda containers is at stake here.
Surely, there is a positive side to America’s obesity problem? More applicants for the armed forces are failing their fitness tests. The numbers are now staggering, relative to those in 2004. While there is much to laud in the campaign from the First Lady to eat better and get fitter, the implications of this green project are obvious. Community gardens, the growth of urban food, will make a better recruit, or at least allow them to pass the physical. Obesity is effectively disarming the United States, a thrilling state of affairs if you are a pacifist, and appalling if you are into exercising the muscles of empire. But let’s keep mum about that.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org