Debate Club

Soda Ban a Meaningless Gesture With Limited Effect


If you're New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Deputy Mayor for Health Linda I. Gibbs, don't be too surprised if you get a call from The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi within the next few days. And don't be too surprised if the result resembles his report on San Francisco's Happy Meal toy ban from early last year.

Here are a few reasons why this is a terrible idea. First, law enforcement resources have alternative uses. New York City has bigger problems than large soft drinks. Is this really something else overworked city officials need to worry about?

Second, the ban is so limited that it is virtually guaranteed to be ineffective. The New York Times reports that "[t]he measure would not apply to diet sodas, fruit juices, dairy-based drinks like milkshakes, or alcoholic beverages; it would not extend to beverages sold in grocery or convenience stores." Also exempted are "vending machines or newsstands that serve only a smattering of fresh food items." In short, it's going to disadvantage McDonald's and create an artificial advantage for 7-Eleven, even though McDonald's will still be allowed to offer free refills.

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Third, this is a good way for public health officials to look like they're taking action when it's almost certainly a meaningless gesture that will have a limited effect, if any. Fast-food restaurants and soft drink purveyors make convenient villains: They're large, faceless companies selling "sinful" indulgences, and they provide us with a nice way to shift blame for problems we bring on ourselves.

Finally, as my Independent Institute colleague Anthony Gregory pointed out on Thursday, this is a clear violation of individual rights and an affront to freedom. Here are a few choice words from the great Milton Friedman's classic Capitalism and Freedom. Friedman would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year, and his words are as true today as they were when they were published 50 years ago:

"So long as effective freedom of exchange is maintained, the central feature of the market organization of economic activity is that it prevents one person from interfering with another in respect of most of his activities. The consumer is protected from coercion by the seller because of the presence of other sellers with whom he can deal. The seller is protected from coercion by the consumer because of other consumers to whom he can sell. The employee is protected from coercion by the employer because of other employers for whom he can work, and so on. And the market does this impersonally and without centralized authority.

"Indeed, a major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it does this task so well. It gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself."

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Here's the New York Times quoting Mayor Bloomberg again:

"'Your argument, I guess, could be that it's a little less convenient to have to carry two 16-ounce drinks to your seat in the movie theater rather than one 32 ounce,' Mr. Bloomberg said in a sarcastic tone. 'I don't think you can make the case that we're taking things away.'"

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Actually, the "case that [they're] taking things away" isn't hard to make. It's self-evident: Specifically, they're taking away one's right to buy 32 ounces of soda in one cup. There's an easy way around it, too: Movie theaters might start allowing people to bring in Big Gulps for an extra fee of a couple of dollars.

True, this might be a minor inconvenience, but where does it stop? Cities like New York and others have greased the slippery slopes along the Road to Serfdom with transfats, and now Mayor Bloomberg wants to limit how people can quench their thirst while they're traveling that road. This is but one example of a much larger problem. If you've been through airport security recently or been carded buying cough medicine, it's clear that liberty isn't going to die in a violent revolution. It's going to be killed by a thousand cuts.

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  • Art Carden

    About Art Carden Assistant Professor of Economics at Rhodes College.

    New York City
    Bloomberg, Michael

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