For Self-Government (and Soda!)

THERE are too many atrocities on the internet to comprehend.  Until today, I had resisted the urge to confront them personally, being all-too-aware that my response might well inaugurate an additional online atrocity.  But, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on all sugary beverages over 16 oz. has dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the blogosphere (those of you who know me well will not be surprised).

To be more precise, however, I must admit that the ban alone is insufficient motivation for my change of heart.  A potential ordinance 1,200 miles from my home does not, in and of itself, impel me to create and maintain this blog.  No, it took a friend’s favorable citation of this post to inspire these comments.  If they (and all foregoing posts) constitute something worthwhile, then I must credit Drew Magary’s admirably passionate (albeit somewhat vulgar and misguided) rant.

Mr. Magary suggests that all complaints about the regulation of soda in New York City stem from a misunderstanding of freedom and democracy.  To those who “think the ban on large sodas is somehow an affront to American freedom,” Magary writes, “I have news for you:  You don’t live in a free country.  You never have and you never will.  That’s an illusion.  You are not free to murder people in America…You do not have absolute freedom to do anything you want in America, and that’s a good thing, because living with absolute freedom means you live in ****ing Deadwood.”

In one sense, Magary strikes against a common misconception:  that freedom is inversely proportional to extent of government restraint.  He rightly berates those who wish to see broken every politically-forged shackle on the human will. If being free means that absolutely nothing stands in the way of our choices, then no man, democrat or autocrat, has ever been free.

As Americans, we conceive of ourselves as free by virtue of our ability to select, through representatives, the particular constraints which must be enforced.  Magary acknowledges this but claims that, since we enjoy representative political institutions, we have no right to complain when unpopular measures are enacted.  Taking this position, however, ignores the double-sided character of the self-government by which we claim to be free.  For, while we enjoy a Rousseauian liberty through popular sovereignty, this liberty is predicated upon a citizenry which grasps Plato’s articulation of self-government (the rational element of the soul subordinating the spirited and appetitive elements).  The American experiment is a synthesis of The Social Contract and The Republic.  The social body cannot be constrained in its self-government unless the individual first exerts constraint upon himself.  The civil code extends to personal minutia (like drinking soda) as a function of the individual’s failure to govern himself.  Thus, while it is nonsensical for a democratic society to decry the soda ban as unjust, it is essential for our social health that we mourn its pronouncement as a sentence upon our own failure to govern our appetites.

There are two additional reasons for cautious opposition to this (and other) dictates of nanny-state liberalism.  First, it represents a qualitative departure from the two primary justifications for law:  harm and evil.  In a liberal state, the first justification tends to take precedence.  We do not question laws which clearly protect us from each other.  Magary rightly mentions laws against murder and obstructing traffic.  The law rightly restricts choices which harm or endanger others.  Laws may also punish acts which, while not necessarily harmful to others, are evil in themselves.  This sort of restriction has fallen out of favor in our society, since evil typically implies an underlying religious conviction.  Invoking a religion to define evil in law usually involves a constitutional violation, so few Americans are willing, for good or ill, to embrace regulations of this sort.

The soda ban can claim neither of these justifications.  Purchasing and imbibing an ice-cold coke does not hurt my neighbor and it (hopefully) doesn’t offend my God.   Thus, banning large sodas relies, not on the premise that civil law should protect us from harm, but that the government should promote our personal good, right down to telling us how much coke we can drink with our burger (and how much that burger should be cooked; seriously, who wants burgers cooked medium-well?).  Acknowledging the validity of this premise is a concession that civil power is bounded by no principle in particular, but only by the extent to which social planners can get away with making our decisions for us.  As self-government wanes, so will the arena of choice reserved to the individual.

Finally, imbuing our elected officials with power over personal (and largely inert) choices reveals an over-confidence in government.  Allowing government to supplant personal choice requires some conviction that government is actually capable of making better choices on our behalf than we would for ourselves.  This conviction isn’t all bad, especially when we’re dealing with choices which would likely harm others.  There is enough at stake to justify the risk.  But, on matters of personal consumption (be it coke or, I dunno, healthcare), the government does not possess the volumes of varying information to which the individual is privy.  Most importantly, the government is not subject to the consequences of those decisions.  The lack of information makes the crafting of policy difficult.  The absence of particularized consequences, in turn, makes it nearly impossible to gauge the economy of even the most thoughtful restrictions.  So, while we may have no grounds to combat such a law, heck, we may even be better off with a smaller glass of coke, the proposal of this ban should raise serious concerns about our society’s capacity for self-government, our justification for law, and our enduring (though consistently refuted) faith in the competence of government.

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