Why government belongs in our soda cups

by D.C. Innes
Posted on Monday, March 25, 2013, at 1:20 pm

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is at it again. Having banned smoking in public parks and trans fats in restaurant cooking oils, restricted the salt in restaurant food, and required menus to include calorie counts, he then tried to ban soda sales in containers holding more than 16 ounces.

Conservatives mock these public health measures as “the nanny state,” but the mayor is perfectly within his right. Hear me out.

This is local government, not the federal government, which in America is rightly one of enumerated powers, and so may do only what the Constitution says it can do. Government so far removed from the people should be correspondingly limited in its scope of action.

But state and local governments have what is called “police power,” the authority to rule broadly on matters of health, safety, and public morals. It is not libertarian to recognize this power, but it is indisputably conservative. Society is not a mere economic alliance, a trading bloc, or a mutual defense pact. It is also a moral bond between people who share a common life. So it is fair for government to protect not only public health but also the health of public morals and citizen character.

For this reason, some communities restrict how pornography is sold (and should go further). We like zoning laws that keep “adult” bookstores from opening next to our homes or schools. We also appreciate the content controls on television that keep our living rooms relatively safe. Most people find the “don’t like it, don’t watch it” argument unconvincing.

Those who balk at Bloomberg’s super-size soda ban pretend that the size of drinks we buy is a raw choice, an autonomous exercise of liberty. But research indicates a strong environmental influence on our food consumption habits. In Switch, Dan and Chip Heath report that serving people different sizes of popcorn containers, each of which holds more than the eater could possibly ingest, results in correspondingly different levels of consumption. Limit the container size, and intake drops unconsciously. And people generally don’t order seconds.

Have you noticed what has happened to cups sizes? My parents recently downsized to a smaller place, and many household items were passed to the children. I was happy to get my dad’s coffee mug that he had used since I was a boy. What struck me was how small it is now. Even our mugs at home are huge by comparison.

The public health crisis is demonstrable. According to the New York City Health Department, “Nine of the top 10 neighborhoods with the highest obesity rates city-wide were also the highest in sugary drink consumption.” A Harvard researcher reports that “one in every 100 deaths from obesity-related diseases is caused by drinking sugary beverages.”

But is this also part of a larger cultural crisis of self-indulgence? Could limiting soft-drink cup sizes also be a means of strengthening citizen character? Habits of self-restraint are essential to our ability to function as a community.

Now what is legitimate is not always what is wise. This may be a matter better addressed with a public education campaign. Less government coercion is generally better. But if conservatives as a matter of principle deny the mayor his right, they may find themselves with their liberal autonomy intact, but no moral basis for community.

D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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