Across the country, from New York to California, there are government bureaucrats who are trying to put their subjects—er, free American citizens—on a mandatory diet. Syndicated columnist George Will thinks this is wrong, and takes particular exception to governments’ favorite regulatory reflex: the detested soda tax. Citing researchers from California Polytechnic State University and George Mason University, Will writes:
[They] powerfully question the assumptions underlying paternalistic policies such as using taxes to nudge individuals to make consumption choices that serve their real but unrecognized interests — e.g., drinking fewer [sugar-sweetened beverages].
Indeed, research shows that the paternalistic policies don’t achieve reductions in obesity. Researchers from Duke-National University Singapore found that even a steep 40 percent tax on all caloric sweetened drinks would reduce daily calorie intake by only 12 calories, less than one percent of a person’s average intake. You would get the same benefit from walking for about 5 minutes.
Other studies have shown similarly pathetic calorie reductions of three and nine calories per day, respectively. No wonder that professional obesity scold Kelly Brownell, godfather of the Twinkie Tax, once wrote, “For some of the most important public health problems today, society does not have the luxury to await scientific certainty.” And Will predicts what to expect when promised obesity reductions fail to materialize:
As the soft paternalism of incentives [like taxes] fails, there will be increasing resort to the hard paternalism of mandates and proscriptions. Hence the increasing need to supervise our supervisors, the government.
We’re already seeing soft paternalism give way to prohibitionist hard paternalism in New York City. With 60 percent of New Yorkers opposing the city’s soft drink ban, one can only hope that someday they will be allowed to ignore a government whose health chief calls each one of them “my patient.”