Zero Calories to Zero Population

Zero Calories to Zero Population

By Jean M. Yarbrough - April 10, 2013

In her recent op-ed in the New York Times defending Mayor Bloomberg’s ban against super-sized sodas, Sarah Conly took aim at John Stuart Mill’s classic defense of individual liberty. In "On Liberty," Mill had argued that individuals should be free to do as they pleased, as long as their actions did not harm anyone else, a position that Conly finds wanting. Citing the latest social and behavioral science research, from Nobel Prize winners no less, she argues that individuals suffer from too many “cognitive biases” to make rational decisions about their long-range goals. Surely we would not want to return to the “old days” when we blamed individuals for making poor choices, and left them to suffer the consequences of their imprudence. We now “know” that individuals suffer from an “optimism” bias, a “present” bias, and a “status quo bias,” all of which undermine the capacity to choose the right means to desired ends. Our “shared cognitive inheritance” being what it is, the only sensible course is to defer to the experts in charge of the “nanny state.”

This makes no sense. If we ordinary humans suffer from cognitive biases that undermine our judgment, don’t these supposed experts as well? Why, then, should we trust them to do any better? In fact, there is even less reason to trust them, since social science research suffers from its own decidedly progressive/liberal bias. As Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University and Leon Kass of the University of Chicago have recently noted in an amicus curiae brief submitted to the Supreme Court, much of what passes for “expert studies” is nothing more than political advocacy. Not surprisingly, this is one “bias” researchers have not yet detected.

It is not simply that her argument rests on the shaky foundation of social science. Conly has no patience with those who see the freedom to purchase over-sized sugary drinks as an affirmation of human “dignity.” “Really?” she asks, as if to say, “You can’t be serious.” But Conly’s argument does raise important questions about liberty and dignity. For if we are so cognitively impaired that we cannot make wise choices about such minor matters, how can we be trusted with more important decisions? The logic of her argument points toward ever more intrusive government.

In her essay, Conly anticipates the objection that banning large size sodas is just the beginning; tomorrow these same bureaucrats will be telling you to “eat your broccoli, floss your teeth, and watch ‘PBS NewsHour’ every day.” The reason this won’t happen is because sensible paternalism is based on a “cost-benefit analysis; if it’s too painful, it’s not a good law.” Should we be reassured?

I don’t think so. First, because Conly seems unaware that government paternalism has led to terrible injustices in the past, the eugenics movement being a prime example. And second, because Conly’s own research agenda is frightening. On the Bowdoin College Philosophy Department website, Conly states that her next project is tentatively entitled “One: Do We Have A Right to More Children?” In it, she proposes to argue that “opposition to population regulation is based on a number of mistakes: that the right to have a family doesn’t entail the right to have as many children as you may want; that the right to control one’s body is conditional on how much harm you are doing others; and that nothing in population regulation entails that those who break the law can be forced to have abortions, or subject to any sort of punishment that is horrific. If population growth is sufficiently dangerous, it is fair for us to impose restrictions on how many children we can give birth to.”

“Coercive Paternalism” may start with soda, but its reach extends to matters at the core of our understanding of liberty and human dignity. 

Professor Yarbrough teaches political philosophy and American Political Thought at Bowdoin College. Her latest book is Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition (University Press of Kansas, 2012).

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Jean M. Yarbrough

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