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Opening Arguments

Nanny mayor loses one

At long last, a deseerved setback for the loathsome nanny state:

NEW YORK (AP) - Eateries from corner delis to movie concession stands have gotten a last-minute reprieve from the nation’s first ban on big sugary drinks. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg is urging them to shrink their cups and bottles, anyway.

Hours after a judge struck down the 16-ounce size limit for sodas and some other sweet drinks as arbitrary and outside city health regulators’ purview, Bloomberg defended it as a groundbreaking anti-obesity effort and all but challenged businesses to comply out of concern for their customers.

“If you know what you’re doing is harmful to people’s health, common sense says if you care, you might want to stop doing that,” he said.

Besides, he said, the city expects to win on appeal.

It was a sign of how aggressively Bloomberg sees the city’s role in pushing New Yorkers to improve their health habits and nudging other cities to do likewise. But it remains to be seen whether the city that was first to compel chain restaurants to post calorie counts and bar artificial trans fats in restaurant food will ultimately prevail in capping soda portions.

A few years ago, there was a short-lived (Lord, I hope so) burst of enthusiasm for something called "libertarian paternalism," which is about as oxymornic as it sounds. The idea is that people don't always make the most rational choice -- more often than not, they go with the default option, regardles of the consequences. So if we change the default option to "the right thing," most people will do the right thing simply because it takes the least effort. We're still leaving people with the freedom to choose while making it more likely they will choose wisely.

A commonly mentioned example is a matching, tax-deferred 401(k) plan at work. When employees have to explicitly decide to join, typically more than half accept the default of not participating even though signing up is easy and, with the employer’s contributions, assures an attractive return. On the other hand, studies show that if employees are automatically signed up unless they opt out, most remain in the program.

The next step in the case for libertarian paternalism gets us to the paternalism. Since in every choice there is a default option, it is a good idea, say advocates of the principle, to make it the option that is best for most people. And fortunately it is often possible for impartial experts with training in behavioral economics to know what the best option is. Therefore, if government frames the choice by requiring that the “best” option be made the default option, then the default bias would result in most people accepting this choice. But the libertarian part of the argument acknowledges that what is best for most people is not best for all, so anyone may choose something other than the default.

[. . .]

Libertarian paternalists use examples other than savings plans to illustrate what they have in mind. They often mention the placement of food in cafeterias, buffets, and grocery stores. Again they argue that the food items have to be placed somewhere, and behavioral economics has apparently shown that choices of what to eat are influenced by where food is placed. So food encountered sooner in cafeterias and most conveniently located in grocery stores can be thought of as default options—it is still possible, of course, for people to choose other options. As far as I know, no advocate of libertarian paternalism has yet recommended that government regulate the location of food in cafeterias and grocery stores. But if the principle achieves political traction, there are sure to be pressures in that direction—though maybe cautious and subtle at first. Who would have thought not long ago that governments would soon be imposing restrictions on where and how cigarettes are displayed in stores or what type of fat is permitted in fast food?

This is an insidious, dishonest apprroach because it seeks to mask the authoritarianism guiding the government action. Somebody is declaring himself the expert at what is best for us and, further, determining that we aren't smart enough to recognize and choose what is best for us. So it must be laid out in front of us to stumble over.

It's not easy to immediately recognize how despicable this approach is until we actually see it in action, as I think we do in the nanny mayor's Super Size drink ban and other healthy-choice edicts. We don't have the good sense to relize how bad sugary drinks are for us, so we will automatically choose the biggest size available. If that size is 16 ounces instead of 32, that's what we'll have. We're too lazy or stupid to realize we can just order two of the 16 oz. size.