Meet The New Paternalism, Same As The Old

Talk about helplessness: “Just as an asthmatic can’t help but inhale pollutants in the air all around him, we Americans cannot help but ingest the calories present in the environment all around us.” So begins a bizarrely serious op-ed by cardiologist John Sotos in Friday’s Washington Post. “Public policies have succeeded in reducing air pollution,” writes Sotos. “They can teach us how to reduce calorie pollution.” He goes on to suggest how the government could require food makers to purchase “emissions permits” for calorie-dense food, subsidizing calorie-light foods at the same time.

This is a pretty wacky idea (and easy to sidestep, too — just bundle celery with every package of butter, after one blog commenter’s suggestion), but it’s hardly unique nowadays. This week’s issue of The Economist features as its cover story the so-called “soft” paternalism that underlies proposals like that of Sotos. The “soft” paternalists claim to know what’s good for you, but they reject the outright bans of “hard” paternalism as ineffective or oppressive. Instead, they propose schemes like “sin licenses,” where you pay your taxes up front on things you like but that academics and activists have declared “sinful” — soft drinks, candy, adult beverages, etc.

Paternalists of any stripe claim that we have two selves: One wants instant gratification, but it’s the other that suffers the consequences later. Of course, there are two ways to solve this problem: personal responsibility, or rules imposed by bureaucrats and meddling activists. You know where the paternalists — hard or soft — stand. As for us, we’ll side with The Economist:

Reasoning, judgment, discrimination and self-control — all of these the soft paternalists see as burdens the state can and should lighten. [Philosopher John Stuart] Mill, by contrast, saw them as opportunities for citizens to exercise their humanity. Soft paternalism may improve people’s choices, rescuing them from their own worst tendencies, but it does nothing to improve those tendencies.

We at the Center for Consumer Freedom agree: Whether it’s as “hard” as a cupcake-sharing ban, or as “soft” as a mere tax on tastier foods, we oppose paternalism in all its forms. Just because some eggheads have tried to make it less obvious, it doesn’t mean that paternalism poses any less of a danger to our liberties.

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