A Fickle Nanny State

Progressives have been guilty of letting our temperament rather than our reason guide policies toward vices; bans on activities like drug use are seen as naïve or old-fashioned, but legal vices like cigarette smoking are public-health or collective-action problems to be solved through brute government action.

By Jack Meserve

During the controversy over the proposed ban of sugary drinks over 16 ounces in New York City, Jon Stewart pointed out that if Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban and Governor Cuomo’s marijuana decriminalization both pass, a 17-ounce soda will draw a larger fine ($200) than a 25-gram bag of marijuana ($100). It was a funny bit, but it reveals a larger, unfortunate fact of recent liberalism: We’ve been incoherent and hypocritical in our policies toward vices.

To illustrate, think of a few of the currently illegal vices: recreational drug use, gambling, prostitution. With some exceptions, the left has been in favor of legalization or decriminalization of these activities. Now think of legal vices: gluttony, cigarette smoking, alcohol use. On these habits, we’ve supported bans, onerous restrictions on place and time of consumption, and increasingly aggressive fines and taxes. There seems very little consistency between these positions, and few have even attempted justifying the differences. Progressives have been guilty of letting our temperament rather than our reason guide the policies; bans on activities like drug use are seen as naïve or old-fashioned, but legal vices like cigarette smoking are public-health or collective-action problems to be solved through brute government action.

As a case in point, look at Andrew Cuomo, who gave mild approval to the NYC soda ban by saying it “can only do good.” At the same time, he is pushing to allow up to seven casinos to operate in New York state, including Manhattan. (Mayor Bloomberg, for his part, believes New York City has enough demand for multiple casinos.) Now, gambling has all of the downsides that proponents of soda regulation have cited. It harms the user; it harms the community through family disruption and unpaid debts (one study found that casinos actually export 10 percent higher bankruptcy rates back to tourists’ home states); and it has no upside in the form of a product or good, just as soda has no nutrition. But just as the first vice is being loosened, the second is being tightened.

Or take pot: At the same time as liberals push for decriminalization and legalization of marijuana and harder drugs, we have been supporting restrictions on cigarettes that have become onerous enough in NYC to approach a de facto ban, if not an explicit one. To borrow a term from physics, what could be the grand unified theory behind these positions? One would be public health: Cigarettes and obesity are more physically detrimental than marijuana and extra- or premarital sex. If government can ameliorate these negative results, why shouldn’t it? But this raises the obvious question of why ruining one’s health is worth responding to but ruining one’s finances at a casino isn’t. Further, though marijuana is not as harmful as cigarette smoke, it still has carcinogens, and is correlated with a variety of negative results including high-school dropout rates and likelihood of committing some forms of crime. Even if any negatives from pot are minor, it’s hard to believe that reforming its legal status would be high on the priority list of someone solely concerned with public health. Nonetheless, progressives have long defended vices like marijuana and sexual mores like prostitution with language strikingly similar to the way conservatives attacked Bloomberg’s soda ban: Government shouldn’t intrude into the private lives of individuals, especially activities having to do with their own bodies.

To be fair, not all of these hypocrisies are true of all Democrats: President Obama’s Justice Department executed a crackdown on Internet gambling so severe that industry members refer to it as “Black Friday.” There have been strong feminist arguments against prostitution. And certainly many of the positions I cite are held by progressive intellectuals and opinion-makers rather than rank-and-file politicians; liberalization of vices especially can still be a third rail in politics.

But my worry is that progressives, who correctly pride themselves on a tradition of pragmatism and sound public policy, are increasingly letting cultural and temperamental biases cloud their preferences when it comes to regulation of vices. I think most would agree that liberals find psychoactive drugs and various forms of recreational sex somehow “better” than smoking or unhealthy fast-food food consumption. Policy preferences have followed.

Even more worrying is the classist element that sometimes permeates these laws. Those with a yearly income lower than $24,000 have a smoking rate above 30 percent, while those who make more than $60,000 a year are 16 percent or lower. Fast-food consumption rises as household income rises up to $60,000, but falls as income increases past that. The very cheap alcohol-caffeine combination of Four Loko was banned out of existence, while someone able to pay more can walk into a bar and order a rum and coke or vodka and Red Bull. Proponents of these restrictions sometimes argue that obesity or alcoholism are greater problems among the poor, but that seems like weak tea as a justification for blatantly hypocritical policies.

But more important than income level is a kind of cultural elitism. Someone who buys a 20-ounce, 330-calorie Starbucks cinnamon dolce latte is viewed differently than someone buying a 20-ounce, 290-calorie Mountain Dew from McDonald’s. The latte would be allowed under Bloomberg’s ban, the Mountain Dew not. Similarly, marijuana smoking has a cultural cachet that cigarettes have lost. In fact teenagers now smoke pot more than they smoke cigarettes.

This isn’t to complain about class or culture; they’re inevitable, and inevitably intertwined. But we as progressives need to have better reasons for our inconsistencies than our own biases. They’re no way to make public policy that treats everyone equally—which is, after all, the goal of progressivism.

Jack Meserve is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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