While Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s fine on 44oz or larger sodas has gotten most of the national attention, Richmond, CA will have a proposal on November’s ballot for a tax on sugary drinks that has gone largely unnoticed. Obvious objections aside, such as that neither plan will do much in the fight against obesity, there are at least two thus-far-unmentioned reasons why each plan should be opposed.
First, obesity is not a public health concern. Yes, over 35 percent of adults are obese and we know that obesity leads to all sorts of ailments, from heart disease to diabetes. All are health issues to be sure, but they are not public health issues. The only reason they are considered to be public health issues is that we have a system of health care in which those who don’t pay for a service can still receive that service. This makes it a public problem because the public shares the cost. So we could easily end the public health problem by eliminating the public from the equation and making people responsible for paying their own way.
Second, the plans simultaneously undermine liberty and a sense of personal responsibility. There is a positive correlation between responsibility and liberty. The more liberty one has, the more responsibility one has. Conversely, the less one is made responsible for his or her actions the less liberty one generally will have. Think of the argument many, if not all, parents have used to justify their rules to their children. “As long as you live in my house you live by my rules.” The argument is: if you are not responsible for your bills you do not have the liberty to do what you want when you want. If you take on added responsibility, like moving out and paying your own bills, you can have all the liberty you want.
Laws have a similar effect. When a law is passed, speaking in very general terms, liberty is restricted and responsibility is decreased. The FDA presumably makes the food I eat safe, but the effect is that the liberty of farmers is diminished and the responsibility of the consumer to know where his food comes from is turned over to the government. As a consumer in the U.S. it is easy to think that because it shows up on my supermarket’s shelf it must be safe.
So in the case of the attack on soda, the idea is that we can limit certain liberties if the public at large has to share the burden of the cost associated with those liberties. This seems like a reasonable tradeoff. If you want something you have to give something up in return. However, the way this tradeoff is being proposed in both Richmond and New York is entirely backwards. If we want people to change their behavior, we should allow individual liberty and encourage individuals to take responsibility for their own actions.
Give people a choice. If you choose to drink large quantities of soda, then you also choose to give up the opportunity to receive taxpayer-subsidized health care. So right on the side of a 44oz Big Gulp we could write this warning: “If you drink all this soda you could become obese and could find yourself in need of medical attention. By drinking this soda you assume all risks associated with it and hold the seller, manufacturer, government, and public at large harmless for your actions.” And while we’re at it we could do something similar for tobacco products.
This sounds unrealistic, if only because of the implementation problems. But it poses no greater hurdle to fair implementation than a health care system in which the government will be in charge of deciding on treatment options and making sure health care professionals get paid.
This proposal sounds inhumane because people who need health care may not receive it. But is that any less humane than forcing people who make prudent choices pay for those who don’t? When the government steps in to limit liberty and responsibility it has already dehumanized all of us.