Unterreiner: On freedom and fizzy things

July 26, 2012, 1:02 a.m.

The New York City Board of Health will vote Sept. 13 on whether to implement Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on sugary soda in containers larger than 16 ounces. Rather than having a pragmatic, detail-oriented, empirically-based discussion about the merits of Bloomberg’s proposal, however, New Yorkers have, in true American style, elevated the debate into nothing less than a blood-and-tears struggle for freedom against the oppressive forces of tyrannical statism.

City Councilman Daniel Halloran invoked Martin Niemöller and resurrected the threatening specter of Nazism. “When they came for the cigarettes, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t smoke. When they came for the MSG, I really didn’t care because I didn’t order it very often. I’m not a big salt eater, so I didn’t mind when you guys regulated salt. But what will the government be telling me next?”

Eight-year-olds grabbed Big Gulps and slurped them provocatively at a 200-person mass protest outside City Hall. Soda company spokesmen wailed loudly about the impending demise of personal liberty. And City Councilman Oliver Koppell denounced the ban as “a clear overreaching of government into people’s everyday lives.” “This infringement on the rights of New Yorkers,” lamented Koppell, “leads us to ask: What will be banned next?”

Oddly, it would have been a better idea for Koppell et al. to ditch the high-minded rhetoric and stick with the empirics. Because practically speaking, the plan is unlikely to work. People will buy two smaller drinks at one store, go next door and buy another or make up the calories with a Big Mac and a beer.

But it is precisely on the principle that each man has the right to eat and drink as he likes — the grounds on which the anti-anti-soda people have staked their argument — that the pro-gastronomic-freedom crowd is wrong. Such an argument might once have made ethical sense in a world in which each individual bore the whole cost of her poor decisions. But in a post-Affordable Care Act world of mutual dependence and interconnected costs, there can be no expected right to other people’s money without the expected responsibility to use it wisely — or face the consequences.

As I briefly argued in my last column, a world in which some people have the right to eat, drink and smoke themselves into oblivion at the legally mandated expense of everyone else would be neither efficient nor fair. It would be inefficient because there would be little incentive to treat oneself well if society bears the costs of not doing so, minimizing the chance that individuals will make healthy lifestyle choices. And it would be unfair because no one should have to pay for his neighbor’s irresponsibility — one reason our society is so rightly fed up with bank bailouts and golden parachutes for the creators of toxic derivatives.

Rights — especially so-called positive rights, or rights to something of value provided by the government — generally entail responsibilities, regulations or conditions on the use of the item of value. One can drive as he likes on his own private raceway; on the public roads, he is subject to stoplights and speed limits. When one makes money, he may spend it as he likes; when he receives food stamps, he must spend it on food. One may use his own money to purchase plastic surgery, but Medicare covers only medically necessary procedures and drugs.

In short, we can have personal freedom or we can have government generosity, but we ought not to have both. Eat and drink as you like, but don’t expect everyone else to pay for the consequences. Or vote — as we have — to care for the public with taxpayer money and accept the practical restrictions on personal behavior that are likely to follow. We cannot expect a fiscally sustainable, fair and just society to do otherwise — in New York or anywhere else.

Share your thoughts on soda at milesu1 “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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