The Big Soda Debate: Jon Stewart vs. John Stuart Mill?

Critics of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to ban the sale of soft drinks over 16 ounces in convenience stores, movie theaters and street carts are having a field day.

Big Thinker Peter Lawler labels Bloomberg the “sugar Nazi.”  Tucker Carlson calls him “an out-of-touch rich guy with a Napoleon complex who is offended by the idea that the proles are drinking sugary soda.”  And Jon Stewart joked last night that the proposal “combines draconian government overreach people love with the probable lack of results they expect.”

Opponents might try to enlist Jon Stewart’s namesake John Stuart Mill, the great 19th-century English philosopher of liberty as another critic of Bloomberg’s nanny-state paternalism. When a citizen wreaks a little havoc, Mill writes, “the inconvenience is one which society can afford to bear, for the sake of the greater good of human freedom.” Adults should not “be punished for not taking proper care of themselves.” Let them eat cake. And let them stop in at a 7/11 to buy a Big Gulp (32 oz.), or even, if they’re really thirsty, a Super Big Gulp (1.2 liters). Hey, it’s a free country. Drink up, diabetes be damned.

But hold off on that conclusion for a moment. Join me on an intellectual exercise where we try to justify Bloomberg’s ban by using Mill’s own Harm Principle as the theoretical guide. I think it can be done.

The Harm Principle states this:


The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

So if the ban on Big Gulps aims only to improve the health of individuals, it is a non-starter for Mill. The only circumstance in which the state can intervene to protect an individual is when he is unwittingly putting himself in immediate and grave danger:

If a public officer or anyone else saw a person attempting to cross a bridge which had been ascertained to be unsafe, and there was no time to warn him of his danger, they might seize him and turn him back, without any real infringement of his liberty; for liberty consists in doing what one desires, and he does not desire to fall into the river.

Drinking too much sugary soda may not be good for you, but quaffing a big bottle of 7-Up is unlikely to kill you on the spot. When the danger to an individual is in this (milder, less immediate) category, Mill argues that the individual “should be warned of the danger, not forcibly prevented from exposing himself to it.”  

But if one’s actions have harmful effects on other people, the story is quite different. Here is the beginning of a Millian defense of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal. A good deal of research reveals a link between the consumption of sugared sodas and obesity. A public health official in Chicago makes this point, and a California study from 2009 found that “adults who drink a soda or more per day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight than those who do not drink sodas, regardless of income or ethnicity.” New York’s health commissioner claims that sweetened drinks account for “up to half of the increase in city obesity rates over the last 30 years.”

By itself, establishing that soda is a significant factor in rising obesity rates wouldn’t be enough for Mill to justify interfering with individual choice. Instead, he would urge “labeling the drug with some word expressive of its dangerous character” to more fully inform soda drinkers of the health risks they are assuming. Mill would applaud the New York City Health Department’s subway ad campaign discouraging soda consumption. One ad asks, “Are you pouring on the pounds?” and depicts frothy fat flowing from a Coke bottle; it advises riders to “cut back on soda and other sugary beverages” and “go with water, seltzer or low-fat milk instead.”

But it is one thing to exhort and another to regulate. The next step toward justifying Bloomberg’s latest move, from Mill’s point of view, is proving that obesity causes harms that extend beyond the girth of the individual. A comparison with his comments about drunkards is telling:

Drunkenness...in ordinary cases, is not a fit subject for legislative interference, but I should deem it perfectly legitimate that a person who had once been convicted of any act of violence to others under the influence of drink should be placed under a special legal restriction, personal to himself; that if he were afterwards found drunk, he should be liable to a penalty...

Like drunk drivers, obese people can and do cause harm to others: obesity costs society about $190 billion every year in health care costs alone. As American obesity has risen from 13 percent to 34 percent of the population between 1960 and 2010 and morbid obesity has grown from under 1 percent to 6 percent it has imposed a huge burden on society. Here is just a sampling of annual costs:

  • $5 billion for the jet fuel needed to haul heavier passengers (compared to 1960 weights)
  • $4 billion for the added gasoline to pull them along the highway
  • $1026 in absenteeism for every “very obese male worker”  
  • $277 in absenteeism for every “mildly obese male worker”
  • $5,530 in higher medical costs for very obese workers
  • The obesity premium takes its toll on everyone in the form of higher taxes, higher health insurance premiums, more expensive airplane tickets and decreased worker productivity. It harms all. It is thus subject to regulation by the state. As a consequentialist, Mill would want to see that Bloomberg’s plan has its intended effect of bringing down obesity rates and he would end it if it did not prove effective. But I think he’d be open to the idea of trying to reduce soda consumption with this regulation. This passage from chapter 5 of “On Liberty” speaks directly to the issue:

    Almost every article which is bought and sold may be used in excess, and the sellers have a pecuniary interest in encouraging that excess...The interest, however, of these dealers in promoting intemperance is a real evil and justifies the State in imposing restrictions and requiring guarantees which, but for that justification, would be infringements of legitimate liberty.

    In this passage Mill refers to a law limiting the sale of alcohol, but its logic extends to Sunkist and Mountain Dew and the rest  both in terms of the harms that “excess” amounts of the beverage can cause to consumers and society and in terms of the “pecuniary interest” the beverage industry has in cultivating excess consumption.

    As counterintuitive as it may appear, on this question Mill would be Bloomberg’s friend.  

    Acknowledgment: Thank you to all of my “Social Contract and Its Critics” students, whose analyses of “On Liberty” in this afternoon’s ferociously good debate inspired, and informed, this post.

    Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

    Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
    to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.


    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
    violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
    do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
    speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
    to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
    controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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