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Mayor Bloomberg’s Lessons in Liberalism

Like liberals generally, he is tone deaf when the issue is freedom.

By 6.12.12

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New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has ignited a minor firestorm by proposing a ban on what he calls "sugary soft drinks" in larger than 16 ounce containers. Even though it's an asinine idea that will have no tangible impact, it is notable because of what it says about divisions in our political philosophies. This is a learnable moment.

The proposed ban is not just a reflection of "Nanny Bloomberg," it is a reflection of nanny liberalism. If you think Bloomberg's proposal makes sense, you're a liberal.

In Mayor Bloomberg's view, "We're not taking away anybody's right to do things, we're simply forcing you to understand that you have to make the conscious decision to go from one cup to another cup." That's interesting. How can anyone possibly believe that someone can be forced to understand? "You have to make a conscious decision?"

The Mayor admits that he's applying force but claims that is will not diminish anyone's freedom. He's illustrating the mental contortions that are necessary to liberalism.

The Mayor went on to say, "It's not perfect, it's not the only answer, it's not the only cause of people being overweight -- but we've got to do something. We have an obligation to warn you when things are not good for your health." Does the government actually have "an obligation to warn you?" Says who? Where did such an obligation come from?

If the government doesn't warn us about something, does it mean it's safe? "We've got to do something" are five of the most dangerous words in the English language. More often than not the "something" we're told "we've got to do" does far more harm than good.

Bloomberg claims to have our best interests at heart: "I would just like to push that from the consumer point of view and to force the consumer to hopefully move over to the less fattening drinks and everybody will be better off." To put it mildly, that is debatable.

When conservatives advocate for personal responsibility it isn't only for philosophical reasons. When you start down the road of idiot-proofing society you should not be surprised when the result is a population explosion of idiots. Idiot-proofing society reduces the cost of idiocy. When you reduce the cost of something you invariably get more of it. The doctrine of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) is not as callous as liberals think it is.

When the government sends us a message that it is assuming responsibility for our health and safety it's telling us we don't have to worry about it ourselves, so we don't. Individuals have the best information and incentives for making the right decisions, even though they don't always do so. The question is can the government do better?

Super-sized sugary soft drinks are only one of millions of potentially harmful choices available to us. There is no way the government can warn us and protect us from them all. Our objective should be maximize the amount of responsible behavior. Delegating responsibility to the government is the worst way to accomplish that.

Responsibility is one of those things that has a natural limit of 100 percent. When an entity like the government takes responsibility for a particular problem, peoples' individual responsibility for that problem is necessarily diminished. Mayor Bloomberg's assumption of responsibility for his citizens' weight issues effectively takes them off the hook, at least in part. His presumably well-intentioned policy is training people to be irresponsible. That, in a nutshell, is the problem.

Another way to frame the issue is that it is about where in our society we are going to locate responsibility -- at the center (government) or at the periphery (individuals). In other words, is responsibility going to be centralized or decentralized? An inseparable question related to that choice is do we want to depend on force or freedom?

Like liberals generally, the mayor is tone deaf when the issue is freedom. Freedom is well down their list of priorities and they assume that ought to be true for everyone. They always seem surprised when people bristle about being told what kinds of light bulbs or the maximum size of the toilet tanks they can buy. In their view society and the planet simply cannot afford to let individuals exercise their freedom. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson's Colonel Nathan Jessup role in A Few Good Men: "You want the freedom? You can't handle the freedom!"

To pilfer a phrase from Barack Obama, "Yes, we can."

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