The Right To Drink Unhealthy Soda

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to ban soda. Well, except for sizes 16 ounces and smaller. And all sizes in grocery stores. And diet sodas and fruit juices. But if you’re a cup of 32 ounces of Coke in a movie theater, Bloomberg wants to get rid of you.

“Nanny Bloomberg” has already done things like ban smoking in parks and restaurants and ban “artificial trans fat in restaurant food,” but apparently those haven’t done enough to increase the health of the city, where over half of the citizens are allegedly obese or overweight.

You might think it would be smarter for Bloomberg to go the California route and increase taxes on soda to at least make some money while they’re making people healthier. Actually, he already tried to get a state tax on soda, but it was rejected. So he came up with this new plan that conveniently just has to be approved by a board of people who were all appointed by him! (Brilliant system of checks and balances you got there, NYC.)

Some economists say this idea is more like a “nudge” than a “ban.” It doesn’t forbid large drinks – it just makes you have to carry them in smaller cup sizes. “Nudges” are a favorite tool of technocratic economists who want to mold the world to their idea of good; it’s a way to change the incentives of undesirable behavior to encourage less of it without completely banning it to preserve the rights and freedoms of those who still really want to do it. Win-win, right?

Wrong.

1. I don’t believe the government should be deciding what’s best for people. (I believe personal freedom is more important than the chance that the government will get it right.)

2. I don’t like how the proposal’s arbitrary details create winners and losers in the marketplace. (If Bloomberg really cares about obesity, why are gas stations and grocery stores exempted?)

3. The government moves too slowly to be effective anyway, and thus is more likely to make things worse than better.

Yes, Americans are becoming woefully obese. But as more information has spread about the dangerous effects of soda, consumers have responded both by drinking less and creating demand for healthier kinds of soda. As a result, the problem is allegedly solving itself: “Calories consumed from soft drinks have declined more than 20% over the last decade.” By the time the government starts to limit soda, the problem has already moved to other drinks or foods or lifestyle choices (how long until we start seeing exercise nudges?). By the time government mandates billions of gallons of ethanol to reduce demand for oil, we learn that ethanol might be worse than oil and move on to other alternatives.

Now I might be willing to compromise on a nudge if there was sufficient evidence that the behavior was particularly costly or carried large negative externalities and there were compelling factors that were preventing people from making good decisions or the market wasn’t already correcting the problem fast enough and there was a believable chance that this nudge would help things without creating unintended consequences or invitations to corruption. Surely many technocrats feel that way about Bloomberg’s obesity law. I don’t.

But even if I did, it’s important to remember that this proposal is not happening in a vacuum! Bloomberg has already created multiple “for your own good” bans, and I doubt this will be the last. He’s not the only one, either. A town in New Jersey recently outlawed texting and walking. California cities are outlawing plastic bags and frisbees on beaches. Any activity with the most tenuous connection to a negative externality, or even none at all, is up for grabs by officials who decide that they are more qualified then you to decide what is a good decision for you.

Thus we get an ever-increasing heap of rules and regulations that become increasingly difficult to follow (besides all the increased costs to businesses and consumers and opportunities for political corruption). Each individual ban may not be particularly onerous (remember the outrage about conservative outrage about petty light bulbs?), but they bind together to create a pretty terrible monster. I call it “death by a thousand nudges.”

If we can ban certain sodas, why not others? After all, they say diet soda isn’t that great, either. Are Twinkies and Oreos up next? (Oops, New York City has already banned most bake sales.) What about coffee? What about ALCOHOL?

Oh yeah. We already tried that. And we discovered that it was both principally and practically terrible.

In theory it might sound like a good idea to stick lots of clever government hands into the marketplace to encourage consumers to make better decisions about their own health. But government’s not smart enough to do it right all the time, and it doesn’t know when to stop. I don’t mind governments encouraging transparency about food and drink information, and education to make better decisions, but I draw the line at actually restricting those decisions.

But, hey, if the most liberal areas in the country want to show everyone how terribly restrictive their condescending nanny philosophy is… be my guest…

2 thoughts on “The Right To Drink Unhealthy Soda”

  1. Our city council has banned plastic bags too, although it doesn’t take affect until some months from now. Thing is, I used to use a reusable cloth bag 95% of the time cause they’re more convenient, but lately I’ve been using plastic bags so I can stock up. I use the things as liners for small trash cans. Not sure what I’ll do when I run out for good.

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