This article is written in response to “New York Got it Right,” by Andrew Seo.
When the New York City Board of Health ratified Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on large soft drinks just a few weeks ago, it placed itself at the forefront of a dangerous new movement in American governance. Indeed, many condemned the measure for its blatant violation of individual liberty. The Center for Consumer Freedom, for example, aptly dubbed Mayor Bloomberg “The Nanny,” questioning: “What’s next? Limits on the width of a pizza slice, size of a hamburger, or amount of cream cheese on your bagel?”
But New York’s paternalistic move is far from the first of its kind. Back in February, a North Carolina parent became irate after her 5-year-old daughter’s home-made lunch was taken away at school for not being “nutritious enough.” According to Bob Barnes, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at West Hoke Elementary in Raeford, North Carolina (the “scene of the crime,” if you will), an agent from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Child Development and Early Education was at the school that day, and examined six student lunches. The lunch that this alphabet soup determined to not meet necessary nutritional criteria? A turkey and cheese sandwich on white wheat bread, potato chips, a banana, and apple juice.
According to the Carolina Journal, this lunch did not meet specific guidelines outlined by the US Department of Agriculture: one serving each of meat (or meat replacement), dairy, grain, and two servings of fruit and vegetables. As such, the child’s lunch was taken away, replaced by the school’s lunch (chicken nuggets), and the parents were billed as a result–although the 5-year-old girl was so shaken from the incident that she barely ate at all.
To be fair, the Division of Child Development and Early Education reported to the Blaze that laws only require the school to provide additional food necessary to meet the requirements (for which the parents will be billed), but not to take any food away, deeming the event a misunderstanding. And, like the New York soda ban, the measure stands for good reason: North Carolina has the 11th highest childhood obesity rate in the nation, and nearly one out of three (32 percent) of children ages 10-17 in North Carolina is overweight or obese. Should we really demonize programs designed to help children grow, curb the obesity epidemic, and improve public health? Indeed, many have touted these measures as some of the first steps in the right direction towards confronting one of our nation’s most serious threats.
First, I disagree from a consequentalist perspective that a container size restriction on sugary drinks will actually curb obesity, or that replacing a 5-year-old’s lunch will promote public health, especially when turkey sandwiches are replaced with processed chicken nuggets and pizza and french fries continue to be considered vegetables under official state guidelines. But more importantly, regardless of these policies’ usefulness or lack thereof, their underlying paternalistic ideology is problematic.
To these government officials, rights no longer matter simply because they – our “benevolent betters” – have decided that parents don’t know how to best take care of lives they themselves brought into this world. What’s more, not only has the government decided that children need a new set of parents to monitor their eating habits, but in New York City, even responsible adults do, too. In a nation of turkey sandwich delinquents and Coca-Cola felons, at what point can we admit that healthier choices are no longer choices at all?
In fact, the biggest question at hand is how these paternalistic policies could actually have been enacted at all in the supposed “land of the free.” America doesn’t solve its problems through uselessly expanding the long arm of the state, but these policies intend to do just that. In this way, the New York soda ban is more than a singular instance of infringement on individual liberty. Rather, it stands to head the continuation of a movement to a new kind of paternalism in American governance.
The way I see it, New York got it wrong – in more ways than one.
Photo Credit: USDA.gov