Disagreeing with Andrew Sullivan

I feel almost silly trying to argue with Andrew Sullivan, because his whole job is to create these arguments. But still, I think he and his commenters are missing a key point on the whole Bloomberg proposal to limit the maximum soda size in the city. I agree that it’s silly to have that regulation and also the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. But life is silly sometimes. And the Nathan’s contest comes but once a year, while sodas are every day.

The broader point Sully is making is that government regulation is generally a bad thing, and that people should be free to have as much bad-for-them soda as they want. But here’s the thing: Government is how people as a society make decisions.

Let’s use the (admittedly-flawed) household analogy. My wife likes a piece of chocolate now and then, but I really love chocolate. If there’s chocolate out on the counter, I’ll take a piece every time I walk past, and the next thing you know, I’ve eaten it all. So, we hide it.

I know exactly where the candy is – it’s in the top left drawer in the dining room cabinet, with the spare keys and the emergency flashlights and candles. But because it’s out of my immediate reach, I don’t eat it all. It’s not impossible for me to get it, but I make the decision in advance not to eat it, and then I don’t have to think about it again. I’m not forbidden from eating chocolate. It’s just ever so slightly more inconvenient.

Or consider Sullivan’s own medical care. Rather than make the decision every week about when to take an injected dosage of medication, he got a time-release implant. Making the decision in advance, once, in a more-permanent way, improved his health by taking a regular decision out of his hands.

If a large number of New Yorkers and advisers say “Mayor Bloomberg, we’re concerned about our health, please adjust regulations to make us healthier overall” then he’s got a very good reason to restrict extra-large sugared beverages.

This is, in fact, why Mitt Romney’s “corporations are people” statement is almost true. Corporations are made of people. They’re a way that people pool money and risk and decision-making.

And yes, I’m saying this as a liberal technocrat for Obama. People, whether they’re acting as decisionmakers for themselves or for their corporations, don’t always do the right thing. Getting those regulations right matters, whether they’re outright bans or little nudges.

Whether restricting maximum soda portion size makes a difference remains to be seen. But it’s not an unreasonable restriction on liberty, especially since, as everyone points out, it’s just a nudge and not an outright ban.

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