Banning Food, Banning Freedom
(The following Op Ed is from The New York Analysis of Policy & Government, Frank Vernuccio, Editor, in response to Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on large sodas)
The increasing role of government in the private life of American citizens has been portrayed as almost inevitable. However, recent attempts to regulate the size of soft drinks brought the glare of ridicule to this trend. The alleged good intentions of politicians in dictating personal matters raises the question of whether government has gone far beyond the functions authorized by the Constitution, at the cost of neglecting the real and pressing needs of the nation. It also raises the issue of whether there is an additional, less discussed, agenda at play.
A salient example comes from America's largest city, New York, which faces major problems. While the crime rate both in New York State and The United States is falling, serious crime in the metropolis is rising. Its unemployment rate is 10.2 percent, far above the national average of 8.2 percent. Half of its 8th graders fail statewide science tests. Major infrastructure issues exist. Budgetary concerns may cause the closing of firehouses. Taxes are exceptionally high.
The Big Apple's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, however, has other concerns on his mind. Much of his time and attention has been spent on the dietary habits of his constituents. He has vigorously addressed his displeasure on what he perceives to be the excess intake of calories, sugar and salt by his jurisdiction's residents. (The mayor has also authored other bizarre decisions. In a 2010 snowstorm, his administration's transportation chief ordered the plowing of a bike lane before many key roadways were cleared; at least one death was attributed to the inability of an ambulance to make a timely arrival.)
The growing gap in the time elected officials spend addressing personal peeves and the performance of their actual duty to deal with traditional governmental responsibilities has become a contentious issue on the local and national levels. (It's not only elected officials who are guilty of this. The Occupy Movement was widely criticized as focusing on generalized, and rather confused, complaints about society rather than on specific challenges government can actually meet.)
Americans increasingly perceive that their government's emphasis on personal matters is misguided, as revealed by a Rasmussen poll taken in June. Only 24 percent agree with Bloomberg's recent attempt to ban the sale of large soft drinks, which would be imposed by the city's unelected Board of Health at his whim, without the input of the electorate or even the local City Council.
The response from civil libertarian think tanks has been scathing. CATO Institute's David Boaz writes:
"In a free society, government doesn't make our personal decisions for us. We don't need a Big Brother or a mayoral nanny. We have the right and the responsibility to make our own decisions, so long as we don't interfere with the rights of others."
CATO has monitored the development of our over regulated society for some time. Its policy analyst Radley Balko used the writings of Pulitzer-prize winning economist James Buchanan as part of the basis of his study. "Conventional threats to freedom," Buchanan wrote, "from...central planning...and...the welfare state...are today joined by...paternal socialism...which [is the] willingness among many to allow the government to take control of their lives. The emerging threat to American liberty today, then, is...the desire among some in government to interfere in nearly every aspect of our lives, and the lack of concern on the part of many Americans that this is happening."
Contrary to the impression that the would-be food regulators give, Americans are not increasingly unhealthy. The CATO study emphasized that Americans are living longer than ever.
James Gattuso, writing in The Foundry, stated:
"Contempt for consumers is...at the heart of this proposal. It has the distinct smell of elitism about it...the Great Unwashed...can't be trusted with their own health...they should not be allowed to spend their money on Mountain Dew; they should spend it on vanilla lattes as their betters do."
The concern is not confined to conservative think tanks. PJ Media recently asked, "If government bureaucrats can ban the types of fast food outlets available, manipulate the size and types of drinks we consume, and regulate every aspect of food preparation, what couldn't they attempt to ban?...Will Bloomberg next propose a measure limiting red meat intake...Will the nanny state do-gooders ban hot dogs, or force Americans to take part in government exercise programs...?"
A Hoover Institution study noted that "The current unease is rising among people who are comfortable with some substantial government role in providing jobs, supporting agriculture, subsidizing health care, financing education, or regulating banking. They have the visceral sense that things have gone too far. They are clearly fortified in their view by the chronic levels of unemployment...in the face of an ill-conceived stimulus program that seems to have done nothing to improve overall productivity. And they are not amused when government pads its payroll with folks who don't do much of anything useful."
Parallels have been drawn between Bloomberg's elitist impulses and President Obama's Health Care law. NPR reports that "some Bloomberg critics on social media did detect a nanny state axis...and warned that Bloomberg's proposal could be a vision of the future under Obama."
Conservatives have long warned that if the government is responsible for your health care, it will soon claim the right to determine what behaviors you should or should not do that affect what it will have to pay to keep you healthy. The Washington Examiner's Philip Klein notes that Bloomberg, in defending his ban, quoted a supporter who wrote that "anyone who pays taxes and thus bears the health care costs...should support this."
"Ultimately," Rasmussen notes, "Bloomberg's ban on large sugary drinks highlights the gap between the American people and their political leaders. Most Americans are looking for ways to change the system so that they can make their own health care choices rather than have decisions imposed on them. The political class wants to make those choices for us. That's the key question in the [national] health care debate. Who do you trust more with important decisions: the government or the people?"
NYC is not alone in its intrusiveness. Author David Harsanvi writes that "countless busybodies across the nation are rolling up their sleeves to do the work of straightening out your life. Certain Massachusetts towns have banned school-yard tag sales. San Francisco has passed laws regulating the amount of water you should use in dog bowels." There are numerous other examples, some of which would be comical if the implications for civil liberty were not so serious.
Rasmussen's other recent polls provide an indicator of what the majority view on that issue is. Another June poll demonstrated that 51 percent believe "that government is more of a threat to individual rights than a protector of them." An April poll revealed that "only 22 percent believe society would be become more fair if there was greater regulation."
Interference in personal matters extends beyond food. Increasingly, education has been the battlefield where elitist attempts to regulate personal behavior have been launched. Legal writer Elie Mystal recently wrote about the New York State Department of Education's weird decision to ban words (are book burnings far behind?) that they deem too controversial. The outcast words weren't curses or racial insults. They included "birthday," (it might offend Jehovah's Witnesses) and dinosaur (which could anger creationist) as well as other harmless phases.
It is not inappropriate to ask whether there is another agenda involved. Many of the foods that have been objected to by the would-be nannies are the same or similar to those that were the target of anti-American protestors overseas who demonstrated at fast-food outlets such as McDonalds.
Similarly, educational bureaucrats seem to have a penchant for banning American cultural icons. A California school sent home a student who wore a U.S. flag t-shirt on Cinco de Mayo. A principal in Brooklyn has forbidden the singing of "God Bless America" in the odd belief that the tune would be offensive to some.
We seem to have arrived at a time when previously unquestioned values--important ones such as personal freedom and patriotism, and lesser ones, such as the foods we eat--are no longer shared by some elitist bureaucrats. They appear anxious to subdue traditional expressions of American culture in favor of multiculturalism.
Eugene Miller, in his study of F.A. Hayek's opus, The Constitution of Liberty, stresses that Hayek believed that the west, as a whole, is losing faith in the principles of liberty. Government, Hayek noted, must be prevented from using coercion improperly.
There's a lot more at stake than your right to quench that thirst with a large Coke.
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