A Symbol of Government Over-Reach

Want the freedom to marry your gay lover? New York City will happily oblige, even granting your partner pension rights if you work for the city. A down-on-her-luck teenager wants an abortion without parental consent? No problem. It's legal in New York. And, guess which city's officials are working to give its citizen the freedom to legally possess marijuana?

Yet, there is one act too dangerous, with consequences too heinous, to allow citizens their own choice. Buying a large soda. Oh, the horror!

On Thursday, the New York City Board of Health approved Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to ban large sodas at restaurants, street carts and movie theaters. The move comes on the heels of Bloomberg's previous successful efforts to ban trans-fats, add calorie labels to restaurant menus, pressure food companies to reduce salt, and selectively license "green" produce vendors. Yet, it remains a mystery as to why Bloomberg believes New Yorkers who know when it's in their best interest to marry, have an abortion, or smoke dope are suddenly so cognitively impaired when deciding whether to upsize their Coke.

During the Republican primaries, Mayor Bloomberg denounced the field by saying, "We have presidential candidates who don't believe in science." Bloomberg, of course, was referring to the science of climatology. But it seems his proclivity for the findings of science stop when it comes to asking what will come of his efforts to tighten the belt around New Yorker's waists. Economists and other social scientists have been studying the effects of fat taxes, calorie labels, and ingredient bans for years. The bulk of the research (for examples see here, here, here, or here) shows these moves are unlikely to have any substantive effect on people's weight or health. Given all the loopholes in Bloomberg's soda ban policy, it too is destined for failure. But, even if it causes folks to shed a few pounds, we'd still have to ask whether it and all the other policies are worth the cost.

The soda ban transcends questions of policy efficacy, and raises questions about the proper role of government in our lives. Bloomberg has made his position clear. Speaking to a United Nations general assembly, he argued that "Governments at all levels must make healthy solutions the default social option," saying, "That is ultimately government's highest duty." Somehow I must have missed the lesson in civics class revealing my portion sizes as Uncle Sam's highest duty.

Don't get me wrong, being obese is costly. People that are obese earn lower wages, pay more for health insurance, and have higher medical costs than the non-obese. None of that is to mention the costs of the social stigma cast on the obese by precisely those folks who say they're trying to help. All those added costs are ample incentive for me to worry about my weight. But, when did my weight (and your weight) become Bloomberg's problem?

Maybe Bloomberg is worried about the public costs of Medicare and Medicaid. Yet, all these programs have done is turned private costs public. Simply re-allocating the costs of obesity from one person to another through public insurance doesn't make the cost disappear. Nor does it justify regulating obesity. The costs of obesity didn't become an economic externality simply by shifting who pays the costs.

I doubt Bloomberg really expects his large-sized-soda ban to have much impact. Rather, it serves as a symbol. But a symbol of what? Perhaps, it symbolizes his passion about the health of New Yorkers. Yet, it is also a symbol of government over-reach; of a government that knows no bounds in reaching into the minutia of our daily lives for the sole purpose of creating a symbol.

Bloomberg is right to presume people know best whom to marry and whether to indulge in a little cannabis. All I'm asking is that he give the same leeway at the soda fountain.

Jayson Lusk is a professor of agricultural economics and author of the forthcoming book Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate (Crown Forum, April 2013). He blogs at www.jaysonlusk.com.