Been having an interesting conversation over at Waka waka waka about the recent proposal in New York for an 18% “obesity tax” on pop (as we call soda in Nebraska). Basically, he thinks the tax is akin to fascism; I think it’s a public health measure, akin to a tax on cigarettes. A reasonable disagreement, I suppose. But I confess: I am really having this discussion with the good Mr. Pollack because his premises just plain piss me off:
… whatever the proper role of government may be … it is certainly not to fill its coffers with our hard-won wages while coercing an ostensibly free citizenry into following whatever diet some power-besotted half-wit beaureaucrat in Albany has decided we should be consuming. I am an adult, not a child, thank you very much, and if I want to damage my health, I’ll damage it as I see fit; I do not need the benevolent hand of the State deciding that henceforth I shall be poisoned with aspartame instead of corn syrup.
I suppose it’s because I grew up deep in paleolibertarian country (expressed in my boyhood as mindin’ your own darn beeswax), and that I endured a self-inflicted Ayn Rand phase that I react like a bird-dog spotting a winged duck to such, well, such tripe. The deliberate evasion of reality just sets my tulip to crankin’. And not in a good way. But I will restrain my apostrophisizin’ impulse, and attempt to address the issue reasonably.
The reality is, many – nay, most – Americans routinely opt for unhealthy dietary choices. Such as drinking pop. Obesity is a public health issue (some call it an epidemic). The government has a role – nay, a responsibility – to step in and try to do some good here. Seems to me that a luxury tax is one possible, sensible way to achieve this. After all, what is pop if not a luxury? It serves no useful purpose beyond providing positive P & L figures for a few multinational corporations and making rum palatable. I don’t think those corporations have a right to their profits, particularly when they are peddling poison (albeit a tasty one). The government’s responsibility is to look to the health and well-being of its citizens. I doubt even your most hardcore libertarian would object the government’s polio vaccination program (though perhaps I’m wrong about that), for instance. I see a luxury tax on pop in the same vein. It is a proactive way to try and limit what is in fact a public health menace.
The problem Malcolm is having, I think, is that he sees eating as a “personal choice”. After all, he’s the one purchasing the sugary goodness and swallowing it. Whereas polio is not something that you choose, it’s something you get. But this is simply interpreting your reality very narrowly. Unless you are growing all your food in your own garden (as well as producing all your own seeds, fertilizers, and water supply), nothing you swallow is simply chosen and consumed. It all comes out of an incredibly long supply chain, where thousands of decisions have been made for you, long before you ever crack open that can of Dr. Pepper.
I grew up on a farm, and I can tell you that a farm isn’t even close to the beginning of that chain, my 7th-grade health class workbook notwithstanding. The fertilizers, the fuels, the equipment, the soils … you could trace this out all day. Ditto the evolutionary paths that cause us to prefer, again and again and even against our own better rational judgment, sugary soft drinks over, say, boiled water. We are hard-wired for this sort of thing. It’s what kept us alive on the primordial savanna and what is killing us slowly in New York (and Nebraska, and Phanat Nikhom, Thailand).
Your ability to slurp down a Coke is only possible because an incredibly complex system is in place to deliver it to you. (Starting, I would argue, on Madison Avenue, or wherever advertisers hang out these days.) Too complex, in fact, for you to fully reconsider each and every time you sit down for a nice refreshing drink. That is, if you ever want to finish the can. Nonetheless, your health will be affected if you drink a few thousand cans of Mountain Dew, which will in turn affect my reality when, say, my insurance premiums go up. This happens regardless of whether you acknowledge it or not. Simply put, reality is complex. You can’t sum it up in a few neat little aphorisms and slogans.
But you can certainly try:
Even leaving aside the utter stupidity of this proposal — as if the only cause of obesity were sweetened soft drinks, which is a palpable absurdity — it is insulting and offensive, and is not what government is supposed to be doing. I would like my government to secure the borders, enforce contracts, keep the peace, pave the roads, and perform similar essential services, and for those I am happy to pay a fair tax. But I most certainly do not need my freedoms usurped by a bloated State that seeks to assume the role of surrogate mother.
No real facet of actual reality as we presently know it is acknowledged in the above, that I can see. Simplistic wishful thinking, is what it is. A collection of circular phrases, the philosophical equivalent of pep rally cheers. This annoys me, especially when it comes from someone whose writings I otherwise respect, someone otherwise quite thoughtful on various, widely divergent issues. A dogmatic take – religious, libertarian, socialist, whatever – strips reality of its complexities, and renders further discussions a gridlocked impossibility. Reality is not an easy-to-drink bromide. If you try to make it one you’ll get it wrong, again, again and again.