The Great Soda Controversy

Mayor Bloomberg recently announced that he’d like to see limits on the size of soft drinks larger than 16 ounces at movie theaters and restaurants. The idea seems to have a lot of people up in arms, but I don’t think it’s particularly terrible, and I’d like to address some of the objections.

“Government overreach”

The first thing I’d like to address is the general assertion that this is “typical government overreach” or the supposed “nanny state” acting up again. Now really I think this objection is not about the “soda ban” itself, but it’s more of a slippery-slope argument. “Sure, they’re just banning large sodas, but the next thing you know, they’ll be saying you’re only allowed to eat broccoli and lima beans!” This assumes that that restricting drink size is some new unprecedented act that pushes us over a precipice.

However, large cities like New York have had restrictions on restaurants for a very long time. Leaving aside the recent trans-fat ban, there has long been a health department determining how clean the kitchen needs to be, how food should be stored, and the amount of non-healthy material (e.g. rat feces) allowed in your food. Aside from that, there are restrictions on when restaurants can be open, when they can serve alcohol, and when they’re permitted to have outside seating.  In cities where people are eating many of their meals in various kinds of restaurants, these kinds of regulations are vital.

The reasons for these kinds of regulations are numerous, and I’m not going try to list them here, but they generally fall into two classes: protecting consumers, and protecting the common good. Sometimes it’s to prevent people from being loud and stupid and causing problems at 6am, and sometimes the point is to ensure that you’re not being damaged by an unscrupulous or careless business proprietor. So what’s going on with the “soda ban”?

There are 2 main things: First, it’s protecting the common good because the level of soft drink consumption is a public health problem. However, I think the assumption is that it’s a public health problem because business owners are manipulating consumers.

Movie theaters, for example, charge us roughly $4 for a bit of bubbling sugar water, and then they sell you an enormous tub for $4.25. There’s a psychological reason for this. If you went into a movie theater and the largest size they had was a $4 12oz soda, you’d realize how massively overpriced the thing was. However, because they’re offering a 32 oz soda for $4.25, you can justify that the whole thing is worth it, even though the difference in price to the movie theater is minimal. You may not even want 32 ounces of soft drink, but you think to yourself, “At least I’m not wasting as much money as I would if I bought the small size.”

“It won’t make a difference.”

Now in response to this, I expect that people will claim that they’re above those kinds of manipulations, and these laws won’t actually make a difference. Many places offer free refills, so whether you have a 32oz drink or a 16oz drink plus a refill, people could drink the same amount.

I don’t think this is really the case, though. A lot of modern psychology teaches us that people don’t behave in the traditional “rational” model. If you give someone a giant tub of soda, it affects their perception of what a “normal amount” is. Serving size is especially an issue because many of us grew up with the demand that we finish our meals and not waste food. Haven’t you ever had the experience of feeling like you should eat the last three bites of a hamburger, even though you don’t actually want it because you’re already full?

There have been a lot of studies, for example, that show that in an opt-in or opt-out model, people are much more likely to join if it’s opt-out. Even if the whole choice is incredibly clear and it’s very easy to opt-out, people tend to go with the default.

So yes, you can get refills and still drink massive amounts of soda, and that’s part of the reason it doesn’t really impinge on your freedom. But also, I would be surprised if smaller serving sizes didn’t result in lower consumption.

“They’re coddling stupid people!”

I read one objection to the whole thing that amounted to, “This is just because there are too many stupid people out there who want society to make their lives easier. They should learn to be self-sufficient.” Well yes, the point of maintaining a society is to make everyone’s life better and easier.

We have division of labor so that each of us can specialize on some of our skills instead of everyone fending for themselves. We share our burdens and share the produce of our labor, and we’re all better for the arrangement. If people had to do everything for themselves, we’d still be living in huts. Maybe not even huts. I’m not sure I could figure out how to build a good hut on my own.

So society provides us with physical protection and protection of property via the police. Our armed forces protect us from even more dangerous invasions to our personal safety. These issues become more pressing in population-dense areas where we are forced to share some of our dangers. New York has a fire department that will put out your apartment building if it catches fire, and just as importantly prevent the fire from spreading to neighboring buildings. In a city, your neighbor’s house catching fire is a big problem for you too.

And this goes beyond the realm of immediate personal physical safety.  To give some examples, I think it’s appropriate that the government bans the use of lead-based paint on children’s toys.  It would be silly to expect parents to always test each toy themselves to make sure there are no harmful materials.  It makes sense that the FDA researches drugs for effectiveness, since very few people have the expertise to evaluate these things for ourselves.  I think traffic lights and traffic signs are useful.  I’m a fan of having a public school system that tries to ensure that the entire population is at least semi-literate.

So yes, society is supposed to make things easier. It’s supposed to make things safer. We can argue about where to draw the line between “helpful” and “oppressive”, but it’s not stupid to expect that society will work towards making life better for the members of that society.

“They’re taking away our liberty”

I’ve read a few complaints about the “soda ban” that it’s an example of the government impinging on our liberty, and we need a “small government”. So I have a few quick points here.

First of all, the idea that this action impinges massively on our liberty runs contrary to earlier objection that it won’t make a difference.  Yes, you would only be able to buy a 16 oz soda, but you’ll still be able to get refills.  Even if there aren’t free refills, you can buy two 16 oz sodas and effectively have a 32 oz soda.  It also doesn’t apply to grocery stores, so you can still buy a 2 liter bottle and drink the whole thing if you like.  This ban doesn’t actually prevent you from drinking massive amounts of soda if you’re determined to do it.

Aside from that, there’s the fact that when people talk about “small government”, they’re usually saying that they want a restricted federal government with more power reserved to local governments to decide things for themselves.  This action is being proposed by a local government, so there’s no real contradiction.  NYC should be able to decide these things, and if you don’t like it, you’re still at liberty to live elsewhere.  At worst, it’s not the “nanny state”– it’s the “nanny city”.

But even beyond that, honestly, the way I see it is that your liberty is already taken away most of the time.  We have various large businesses in various sectors that engage in semi-monopolistic practices to rig the market into what they want.  Then those businesses use psychology-heavy advertising, marketing, and propaganda to take away even more choice. Everything from entertainment to food to education to health care is constantly being pushed to a factory model where the same thing is being churned out over and over again as cheaply as possible, with no regard to quality and little regard to what people actually want, let alone what’s good for them.

And you know what else? These businesses are often being supported and subsidized by the government. In some cases, it’s even being propped up by laws and regulations. But you don’t hear about the “nanny state” when the government subsidizes corn, you hear about it when there’s talk about strategies to lessen the amount of corn syrup in people’s diet. You don’t hear complaints about the “nanny state” when the government is handing over infrastructure monopolies to cable/phone companies, you hear about it when someone proposes a municipal ISP. You don’t hear about the “nanny state” when the government makes radical changes to copyright law to keep the entertainment industry from having the overhaul their business practices because they’re becoming obsolete, but you hear about the nanny state when the government wants to put any kind of restriction advertising and marketing.

There’s a pattern here, and I don’t think it’s coincidental.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe there’s a coherent conspiracy.  I  don’t think there’s a closed-room meeting where a bunch of guys got together and decided on a strategy to take over the world.  I do think, however, that some of the anti-government sentiments are the result of propaganda formulated by individual businessmen who are protecting their own interests.  The government does a lot of things that helps and hurts a lot of people, but you never hear such widespread outrage as when a government tries to protect the common man from manipulation and harm from large business interests.