Politics & Policy

Libertarian Paternalism, Twisted

When you ban something, you are not helping people make choices, but taking choices away.

Cass Sunstein, now the Obama administration’s regulatory czar, argued that the government can help people make better choices in his 2008 book Nudge, co-authored by behavioral economist Richard Thaler.

They called their idea “libertarian paternalism”: The government should not be so draconian as to take away choices; it should instead do things that make it easier for consumers to make the choices the government wants them to make. Requiring individuals to opt out of an organ-donation program rather than opt in is one example.

But the Obama administration has taken this concept and turned it left side up. In case after case, the administration, in conjunction with local agencies that receive federal-taxpayer dollars, is using the language of choice — but offering no such thing.

Consider Boston mayor Thomas Menino’s executive order this month, which would ban the sale, advertising, and promotion of non-diet soda and sports drinks from city-owned properties. He justified the move in Sunstein-esque language: “I want to create a civic environment that makes the healthier choice the easier choice in people’s lives.”

But when you ban something, you are not helping people make choices, but taking choices away. It’s libertarian paternalism without the libertarianism. Further, there is no evidence that the plan will make Bostonians thin. And if sugary drinks are the cause of obesity, why was, for example, apple juice exempted?

The executive order was the result of campaigning by the Boston Public Health Commission, which received more than $6 million from a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) slush fund created as part of the stimulus bill, and now funded, in perpetuity, as part of Obamacare. The program will balloon from half a billion dollars last year to $2 billion annually in 2015.

The federal grant-making program in question, “Communities Putting Prevention to Work” (CPPW), lists “decreased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages” as the first item on the list of projects funded under the Boston grant. The House will vote this week on whether to de-fund this outrageous program.

The Obama administration now believes it has the right to spend federal tax dollars to promote laws at the local level: laws not even approved by Congress. These include Mayor Menino’s executive order, increased soda taxes, outdoor-smoking bans, and even bans on e-cigarettes. The CDC insists that the funds may not be used for lobbying, but it acknowledges the grants are going to promote local policy changes that do not reflect existing federal policy.

Things aren’t any better in Chicago, which received more than $20 million in CPPW funds. Principals in Chicago public schools get to decide whether parents should be trusted to send their kids to school with lunches from home. One principal who forbids kids to come to school with a lunchbox is Elsa Carmona. As the Chicago Tribune noted, “her intention is to protect students from their own unhealthful food choices.” I don’t think this is what Sunstein had in mind with Nudge.

Some argue that now that the government is paying for health care, it has the right to tell people how to eat. But that’s more of an argument against single-payer health care than for nanny-statism. Especially since these programs are implemented even when they don’t work.

Consider the Obamacare requirement that chain restaurants place calorie counts on menu boards. Scientists studied the impact of a similar law already in place in New York City. They reviewed receipts from kids who ate at restaurants with the menu boards and compared them to receipts from kids from Newark, N.J., where the calorie counts were not posted as prominently. They actually found that the New York City kids ate more calories. Maybe they were trying to get a bigger caloric bang for the buck. Whatever the reason, the law didn’t have the desired effect. When challenged with this news, advocates argued that instead of repealing the law, we just need additional interventions.

By campaigning for nanny-state approaches to the real problem of obesity, the administration is not only taking away our liberties, but filling us up on the policy equivalent of junk food: junk science. Like a bag of chips before dinner, junk-science policies are filling us up — making us think we’ve addressed the problem, but leaving us bereft of innovative solutions that would be far better choices.

Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and heads its Risk Analysis Division. Follow him at @JeffAStier on Twitter.


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