In the United States, as in many other countries, obesity is a serious problem. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to do something about it. Influenced by many experts, he believes that soda is a contributing factor to increasing obesity rates and that large portion sizes are making the problem worse. In 2012, he proposed to ban the sale of sweetened drinks in containers larger than sixteen ounces at restaurants, delis, theaters, stadiums, and food courts. The New York City Board of Health approved the ban.
Many people were outraged by what they saw as an egregious illustration of the nanny state in action. Why shouldn’t people be allowed to choose a large bottle of Coca-Cola? The Center for Consumer Freedom responded with a vivid advertisement, depicting Mayor Bloomberg in a (scary) nanny outfit.
But self-interested industries were not the only source of ridicule. Jon Stewart is a comedian, but he was hardly amused. A representative remark from one of his commentaries: “No!…I love this idea you have of banning sodas larger than 16 ounces. It combines the draconian government overreach people love with the probable lack of results they expect.”
Many Americans abhor paternalism. They think that people should be able to go their own way, even if they end up in a ditch. When they run risks, even foolish ones, it isn’t anybody’s business that they do. In this respect, a significant strand in American culture appears to endorse the central argument of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In his great essay, Mill insisted that as a general rule, government cannot legitimately coerce people if its only goal is to protect people from themselves. Mill contended that
the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.1
A lot of Americans agree. In recent decades, intense controversies have erupted over apparently sensible (and lifesaving) laws requiring people to buckle their seatbelts. When states require motorcyclists to wear helmets, numerous people object. The United States is facing a series of serious disputes about the boundaries of paternalism. The most obvious example is the “individual mandate” in the Affordable Care Act, upheld by the Supreme Court by a 5–4 vote, but still opposed by many critics, who seek to portray it as a form of unacceptable paternalism.2 There are related controversies over anti-smoking initiatives…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.