Of Privacy and Pop
The data attest to America’s rapacious appetite for sugary drinks. According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately one-half of the American population consumes at least one soft drink every day. Determined to outslug its foreign competitors, America dominates the international drinking game. The average American guzzles one hundred seventy liters of soda annually. His closest competitor, the average Mexican, consumes a comparatively small one hundred forty-six liters per year.
And this cascade of calories goes straight to the hips. Numerous studies demonstrate that soft drink consumption produces plumpness in adults and children. Acutely aware of these facts, Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) figured that if Americans lacked the capability to control their liquid intake, then the government must lend them a hand. This past summer, Ms. DeLauro introduced the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tax (SWEET) Act, which imposes an excise tax on the sale of sugary drinks.
The content of the bill may be relatively innocuous, but the logic behind it is alarming. Author G.K. Chesterton said, “Democracy is not founded on pity for the common man; democracy is founded on reverence for the common man.” The SWEET Act inverts this traditional conception of democracy by distrusting the common man’s capacity to make personal health decisions. In a statement about the bill, Ms. DeLauro explained, “People want to be healthy…but we are in the midst of dual epidemics with obesity and diabetes afflicting our nation…the SWEET Act will help correct the path we are currently on.” That is to say, surely you citizens want to be healthy, but you simply lack the restraint to discipline your bellies. You need the government to step in and save you.
But this reasoning is dangerous. If government determines that individuals cannot control themselves, then it could reasonably decide to impose further economic or statutory restrictions. The SWEET Act could eventually morph into legislated teetotalism. And why stop at drink? All food should be on the table. From hot dog tariffs to a lollipop tax, we could soon see the American government levying all sorts of healthy-eating incentives. The food pyramid would cast its triangular shadow over the land in a terrifying display of dietary despotism. Once government no longer trusts the individual to determine what to drink, little prevents it from further tightening its grip on the citizen’s gullet. Ms. DeLauro should maintain a healthy distance from this slippery slope.
In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill contemplates “how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control.” Government must somehow maintain control of its dominion while still granting people space for creative autonomy. Mill concludes that government should give the individual free reign unless his activities impinge on the freedoms of others. Such a system of government enables people to develop virtue from within, rather than having decisions forced upon them.
Ms. DeLauro herself seems to accept some form of Mill’s argument. In a memo to house Republicans, Delauro affirms “women’s constitutionally protected right to make informed health care decisions about their own bodies.” At least half of American citizens, DeLauro believes, can be trusted to monitor their own health.
Given her position on the privacy of personal health decisions, Ms. DeLauro’s distrust of the common soda drinker is surprising. The sugary drink tax, if implemented, would subtly subvert Mill’s delicate balance between law and liberty. Ms. DeLauro would like to surreptitiously influence our dietary decisions, gently nudging us to swap Dr. Pepper and Snapple for tomato juice and celery smoothies. In so wishing, Ms. DeLauro grossly oversteps the appropriate boundaries of democratic government. It is hard to imagine a more personal, more primal realm of human activity than eating food. Even without Mill’s extreme formulation, basic nutritional choices should remain the domain of the ordinary person; such highly personal decisions defy the broad strokes of government regulation. If a person wishes to indulge in a large fountain soda, trading a brief climb in blood pressure for a moment of refreshing bliss, he wagers only his own health; he alone should decide whether to drink or not to drink. Only three people have the right to tell a person what to eat: his spouse, his mother, and God. Big-Brother has no place in the kitchen.
The case for autonomy in drink selection strengthens considerably due to the issue’s inherent ambiguity. Even if heaviness hampers long-term health, a person may still legitimately decide to eat fattening foods. He may reasonably prefer shorter years filled with satisfaction to a long life of laborious dieting. Similarly, when we scuba dive, bike, drive automobiles, or venture outdoors without a helmet, we increase our chances of early death in the interest of filling our lives with pleasure and meaning. This calculation yields no simple formula, and government efforts to distort the results erode basic human freedom. Officials audaciously overstep their bounds when they think themselves more qualified in basic human matters than humans.
Aside from intruding on people’s private routines, weight-loss incentives can actually harm the people they aim to benefit. Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth, argues that the socially constructed categories of weight unfairly vilify the plump. People who innocently put on paddings of salubrious pudge attract heaps of silent obloquy from friends, family, and passersby. They stoop under a heavy social pressure to slim down, subtly bullied into conformity by cultural insinuations such as “The Biggest Loser,” impossibly thin billboard models, and skinny jeans. They often succumb to various degrees of stress and body image anxiety. Government attempts to legislate based on weight stereotypes will further anchor them into the bedrock of America’s collective consciousness, and intensify the emotional damage to the overweight. Pernicious obesity prejudices will gain further legitimacy when proclaimed by the government.
Therefore, Ms. DeLauro, kindly turn your attention to other responsibilities of Congress. Pour your energies into your other enumerated powers, such as coining money, establishing post offices, and punishing piracies. But please remove your hands from my cup. Let me sip in peace.