IN LATE MAY, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he would impose a 16-ounce limit on servings of “sugary drinks”—sodas, sports and energy drinks, sweetened tea or coffee, and artificially sweetened fruit beverages—on the grounds that they contribute to the nation’s obesity epidemic, which in turn elevates the incidence of diabetes and other diseases. Bloomberg previously banned smoking—which, of course, causes cancer and heart disease, and increases the cancer risk even for nonsmokers who inhale secondhand smoke—first in indoor gathering spaces and later in outdoor public spaces like parks and beaches. Hizzoner has also banned artificial trans fats from restaurants (they raise your cholesterol); required restaurant chains to include calorie counts on their menus (obesity again); and strongly urged restaurants and food processors to reduce the amount of salt in food products by up to 40 percent (salt raises your blood pressure).
These policies have been denounced, as one would expect, by restaurants, food companies, and professional curmudgeons on the right. (Fox News’ John Stossel: “In a free society, I should be able to determine my own diet.”) But they’ve also been questioned from less predictable quarters. “It seems to be more on the punitive side of things,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democrat, said about the 16-ounce limit. “I am all for promoting public health,” said Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart of the soda proposal. “But Mr. Mayor, this plan makes your asinine look big.”
Bloomberg’s health policies are straightforwardly paternalistic, and paternalism is an idea nobody feels comfortable with. Indeed, it was loathed by the left before it was loathed by the right. Colonialism was essentially paternalism on a global scale. The 1960s counterculture brought an end to college parietals—the prohibition against a girl spending the night in a boy’s dorm room or vice versa—and never took government prohibitions on recreational drug use very seriously. Listen today to Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 song “Alice’s Restaurant” and you may be surprised by how politically incorrect it has become. Yes, it mocks the Vietnam draft, but it also lampoons—as yet another petty imposition on individual freedom—environmental regulations concerning the disposal of solid waste (known in those days as “garbage”).
The left’s aversion applied to all sources of paternalistic authority: government, corporations, priests, university administrators, and, of course, parents. When the virus jumped to the right it mutated into an aversion only to government authority (with exemptions for the military and police) and granted blanket amnesty to private businesses, religious authorities, mom, and dad.
Yet, even as liberals and conservatives profess to hate the idea of government paternalism, both practice it. Liberals support restrictions on harmful things individuals do to their bodies, like smoking, driving without a seat belt, and riding a motorcycle without a helmet. Conservatives support restrictions on actions they deem harmful to the soul, like having abortions, using contraception, and marrying a person of the same sex.
Restrictions on any of these activities amount to the government saying: Don’t do this; it’s bad for you. After the imposition of New York’s first smoking ban, Christopher Hitchens (by then a sort of left-right hybrid) mocked Bloomberg as “a baby authoritarian who knows what’s good for you. Those, as you know, are the worst kinds of tyranny.” But Hitchens knew well (and often documented) that the worst kinds of tyranny, far from improving the body’s condition, tend to worsen it through torture and death.
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. The government doesn’t want me talking on the phone while I drive? I can’t say I’ve given that vice up completely, but fear of getting ticketed makes me do it a lot less than I used to, and I may live longer as a result. The government wants me eating less salt? I don’t live in New York, but, when I heard Bloomberg was tightening the noose, I reexamined my attachment to sodium chloride and found it to be fairly weak. Bloomberg didn’t want Hitchens to smoke? Hitchens, who died this past December of throat cancer, went to his grave believing his vices remained none of Bloomberg’s business. But after being diagnosed in 2010, he conceded unsentimentally that he had long “been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction.” If New York City regulations persuade some of his acolytes to give up cigarettes and thereby avoid his fate, don’t let’s consider his legacy tarnished.
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. Bloomberg is never going to ban soda altogether; even if he wanted to, he would find the political opposition too great. (He couldn’t even persuade the state legislature to pass a sin tax.) All his nanny state can plausibly achieve is to make it slightly more difficult to drink soda in preposterous quantities.
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.
Timothy Noah is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article will appear in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.