The Threat of the Paternalistic State

[This was published in the Tampa Tribune and the Los Angeles Daily News, July 23, 2002]

A precondition of freedom is the recognition of the individual’s capacity to make decisions for himself. If man were viewed as congenitally incapable of making rational choices, there would be no basis for the very concept of rights. Yet that is increasingly how our government views us. It is adopting the role of a paternalistic nanny, zealously protecting the citizen against his own actions. In the process, our freedom is disappearing.

Obvious examples of this attitude are laws mandating the use of automobile seat belts and motorcycle helmets. Gambling is another area in which the state believes it must keep the individual from harming himself. New York State, for example, has threatened to sue Citibank for allowing credit cards to be used for Internet gambling and for “making profits off the financial hardships of compulsive gamblers.”

Now the food industry is being blamed for the “disease” of obesity. There are proposals for special taxes on “junk food.” A George Washington University law professor, who pioneered the lawsuits against the tobacco industry, says: “You could have states saying that they have this billion-dollar public health problem, and food companies are responsible for a certain percentage of it. It’s a reach, I admit. But they said the same thing about tobacco lawsuits ten years ago.”

The paternalistic “food police” will thus keep people from buying cupcakes so that no one imposes upon the public the “social cost” of extra poundage.

Instead of being morally outraged at this appalling violation of rights, the food industry—like the tobacco industry before it—is appeasing its attackers. Coca-Cola, for example, is giving schools exercise pedometers to show how social-minded it is about obesity. And McDonald’s has announced it will stop “supersizing.” The Wall St. Journal writes that food companies “are contemplating advertisements that would discourage consumers from overeating their products.” What’s next? Ads to discourage banana buyers from eating before peeling?

But it is in regulating tobacco products, of course, that the tentacles of paternalism grip most tightly. The government maintains that, despite widespread knowledge about the dangers of smoking, the sale of cigarettes must be curtailed. With this approach, the government is making two declarations. The first is that you are not responsible for your decisions, and that if you are stricken by emphysema—or are injured in a car accident or become too fat—society will take care of you. The second is that, as a consequence, you cannot be given the freedom to make those decisions in the first place—i.e., your freedom to smoke cigarettes or to drive without a seat belt or to eat what you want will be restricted. Once your life is deemed to be the responsibility of the state, you are no longer permitted to incur “social costs” by making undesirable choices.

Thus, the government tyrannizes companies for having the audacity to make products that so many people willingly buy. In a forced settlement that supposedly compensates state governments for their health costs, tobacco manufacturers will hand over about $250 billion across 25 years. To further prevent people from electing to smoke, it is illegal to sell fewer than 20 cigarettes per pack, to dispense free samples or to award gifts to frequent buyers of cigarettes.

Then there are the pervasive restrictions on freedom of speech. To keep its “infantile” citizens from being persuaded to harm themselves, the government forbids tobacco-company logos on tee shirts. Industry advocacy groups, like the Council for Tobacco Research, have been disbanded; only “disinterested” parties—which the tobacco industry is required to help finance—are now allowed to state their opinions about tobacco. To compound the injustice, the industry had to characterize the forced settlement as “voluntary” and had to waive its right to invoke any First Amendment protections.

It is a rationalization to describe these measures as necessary to safeguard children. While the sale of cigarettes to minors is justifiably prohibited, it is the free choice of consenting adults that is being controlled in virtually all these regulations. And if it is proper to use preventive law to stop adults from buying cigarettes for fear that children too may buy them and be harmed by them, to what area of life would such reasoning not apply? Candy or soda, for example?

If we want to preserve our freedom, we must defend the right of companies to produce the goods that we voluntarily pay for—and the right of each individual to decide how to conduct his life.♦♦

(See also “The Shackles of Paternalism“)

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