Last week, I offered a conservative argument for why state and local governments have the right to stick their noses in our soda cups (as it were). In his now judicially invalidated measures to limit soda sizes, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was justifiably concerned about the city’s epidemic obesity. Unlike the federal government, state and local governments have the authority to act on this. They have what are called “police powers” to regulate health, safety, and morals. That includes the authority to oversee the effects of soft drink marketing on the community.
But I cautioned that not everything permitted is wise. Given what is necessarily the human frailty of those who govern us, it is safer for government to view coercive measures only as a last resort. In view of this, the mayor was too quick to strong-arm on the soda issue.
That astute observer of democratic life, Alexis de Tocqueville, remarked on the paradox of what we call “the nanny state.” These government administrators derive their power the people and yet they panic at the thought of some aspect of people’s lives going unregulated. De Tocqueville wrote:
“[T]hey make them alternatively the playthings of the sovereign and its masters, more than kings and less than men. … It is in fact difficult to conceive how men who have entirely renounced the habit of directing themselves could succeed at choosing well those who will lead them.”
In Bloomberg’s case, the people he trusts to choose him as mayor he distrusts to choose a suitably sized soda.
Good government wants people chiefly to govern themselves. Bad government wants people slavishly dependent. In other words, government that serves the people, not itself, wants as little to do as possible. Where people fall short in this, good government (as appropriate) will help cultivate that ability or remove what’s retarding it.
If it’s true that fast-food retailers seduce poor, ill-educated, undisciplined people into buying ridiculous tankards of sugar-intense drink, a more respectful and edifying local government response would prefer praising good over punishing evil (1 Peter 2:14). Consider what the first lady is doing at the national level to fight childhood obesity by encouraging children to get active and eat healthier. Leadership of this sort elicits support in the cultural media, in private conversation, and among retailers themselves. Even McDonald’s has been pushing low-cal menu items.
Government action might include greater inaction. God gave government to protect people, but protecting adults assumes more personal responsibility than you would expect from children. If government were to withdraw strategically as it did with welfare reform in 1996, people who are presently over-dependent on government provision and under-attentive to their long-term well-being would step up and take charge of their affairs. But it’s doing the opposite. Food stamp enrollment has increased 70 percent since 2008, showing no reversal after the recession ended in 2009. (Incidentally, food stamps cover junk food.)
A wise people are suspicious of government overreach. A wise government sustains a free people.