Monday, Jun 11, 2012, 5:43 PM

A Fickle Nanny State

During the controversy over the proposed ban of sugary drinks over 16 ounces in New York City, Jon Stewart pointed out that if Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban and Governor Cuomo’s marijuana decriminalization both pass, a 17-ounce soda will draw a larger fine ($200) than a 25-gram bag of marijuana ($100). It was a funny bit, but it reveals a larger, unfortunate fact of recent liberalism: We’ve been incoherent and hypocritical in our policies toward vices.

To illustrate, think of a few of the currently illegal vices: recreational drug use, gambling, prostitution. With some exceptions, the left has been in favor of legalization or decriminalization of these activities. Now think of legal vices: gluttony, cigarette smoking, alcohol use. On these habits, we’ve supported bans, onerous restrictions on place and time of consumption, and increasingly aggressive fines and taxes. There seems very little consistency between these positions, and few have even attempted justifying the differences. Progressives have been guilty of letting our temperament rather than our reason guide the policies; bans on activities like drug use are seen as naïve or old-fashioned, but legal vices like cigarette smoking are public-health or collective-action problems to be solved through brute government action.

As a case in point, look at Andrew Cuomo, who gave mild approval to the NYC soda ban by saying it “can only do good.” At the same time, he is pushing to allow up to seven casinos to operate in New York state, including Manhattan. (Mayor Bloomberg, for his part, believes New York City has enough demand for multiple casinos.) Now, gambling has all of the downsides that proponents of soda regulation have cited. It harms the user; it harms the community through family disruption and unpaid debts (one study found that casinos actually export 10 percent higher bankruptcy rates back to tourists’ home states); and it has no upside in the form of a product or good, just as soda has no nutrition. But just as the first vice is being loosened, the second is being tightened.

Or take pot: At the same time as liberals push for decriminalization and legalization of marijuana and harder drugs, we have been supporting restrictions on cigarettes that have become onerous enough in NYC to approach a de facto ban, if not an explicit one. To borrow a term from physics, what could be the grand unified theory behind these positions? One would be public health: Cigarettes and obesity are more physically detrimental than marijuana and extra- or premarital sex. If government can ameliorate these negative results, why shouldn’t it? But this raises the obvious question of why ruining one’s health is worth responding to but ruining one’s finances at a casino isn’t. Further, though marijuana is not as harmful as cigarette smoke, it still has carcinogens, and is correlated with a variety of negative results including high-school dropout rates and likelihood of committing some forms of crime. Even if any negatives from pot are minor, it’s hard to believe that reforming its legal status would be high on the priority list of someone solely concerned with public health. Nonetheless, progressives have long defended vices like marijuana and sexual mores like prostitution with language strikingly similar to the way conservatives attacked Bloomberg’s soda ban: Government shouldn’t intrude into the private lives of individuals, especially activities having to do with their own bodies.

To be fair, not all of these hypocrisies are true of all Democrats: President Obama’s Justice Department executed a crackdown on Internet gambling so severe that industry members refer to it as “Black Friday.” There have been strong feminist arguments against prostitution. And certainly many of the positions I cite are held by progressive intellectuals and opinion-makers rather than rank-and-file politicians; liberalization of vices especially can still be a third rail in politics.

But my worry is that progressives, who correctly pride themselves on a tradition of pragmatism and sound public policy, are increasingly letting cultural and temperamental biases cloud their preferences when it comes to regulation of vices. I think most would agree that liberals find psychoactive drugs and various forms of recreational sex somehow “better” than smoking or unhealthy fast-food food consumption. Policy preferences have followed.

Even more worrying is the classist element that sometimes permeates these laws. Those with a yearly income lower than $24,000 have a smoking rate above 30 percent, while those who make more than $60,000 a year are 16 percent or lower. Fast-food consumption rises as household income rises up to $60,000, but falls as income increases past that. The very cheap alcohol-caffeine combination of Four Loko was banned out of existence, while someone able to pay more can walk into a bar and order a rum and coke or vodka and Red Bull. Proponents of these restrictions sometimes argue that obesity or alcoholism are greater problems among the poor, but that seems like weak tea as a justification for blatantly hypocritical policies.

But more important than income level is a kind of cultural elitism. Someone who buys a 20-ounce, 330-calorie Starbucks cinnamon dolce latte is viewed differently than someone buying a 20-ounce, 290-calorie Mountain Dew from McDonald’s. The latte would be allowed under Bloomberg’s ban, the Mountain Dew not. Similarly, marijuana smoking has a cultural cachet that cigarettes have lost. In fact teenagers now smoke pot more than they smoke cigarettes.

This isn’t to complain about class or culture; they’re inevitable, and inevitably intertwined. But we as progressives need to have better reasons for our inconsistencies than our own biases. They’re no way to make public policy that treats everyone equally—which is, after all, the goal of progressivism.



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"...we’ve supported bans..."

One should always endeavor to speak only for one's self.

Jun 13, 2012, 3:35 PM

I'll speak for myself as a member of the "left" who is not a policymaker and likely never will be.

I am opposed to prohibition, but I am not opposed to restrictions on time, place, and manner. So, legalize marijuana, but subject its use to the same restrictions as cigarette use faces. Keep gambling legal, but regulate those who operate casinos. Legalize prostitution, but make sure that prostitutes adhere to certain standards of cleanliness and are tested for STDs.

Your argument is a little too convenient--I don't know that those who are asking for liberalization of drug laws and prostitution laws are asking for absolutely unfettered access to those vices. Do you really think that a person on the left who is pleased that you can no longer light up a cigarette at a bar is also demanding that the law allow us to spark up a joint at that same bar?

Jun 13, 2012, 3:45 PM
Ryan Elias:

I think what you're missing is that many (most?) liberals support regulation of vices, but not outright bans. There's a lot of commentary out there, if you care to find it, to the effect that the soda ban is problematic because it won't work. I think that's probably overstating the case -- I think it will probably have positive public health outcomes (many people will buy smaller sizes without ever even thinking about it), but probably not as positive as less draconian, more price-incentive type measures might be (an escalating tax on larger sizes?). And putting controls in place on large sizes certainly isn't the same as banning soda outright.

On the other side of the equation, I don't think there's a lot of support for straight-up, unregulated legalization of marijuana, let alone other narcotics. Or for the complete deregulation of prostitution. The common position of progressives is that the social harms of these things can be mitigated by thoughtful regulation (much like the social harms of alcohol, cigarettes, investment banking, and so forth), but that outright prohibition is not only unjust, but also counterproductive. The demand for them won't go away, so it needs to be managed.

Which is not to say that the ways in which regulations are actually implemented aren't frequently extraordinarily stupid. But I don't think the philosophy underlying the common liberal approach to vices is hypocritical.

Jun 13, 2012, 3:53 PM
Jeffrey Ellis:

Excellent points, all around. Here, in California, the hate for smokers was evident behind a great deal of support for Prop 29. I am anti-smoking, but voted against the measure due to the punitive nature of the tax. I see nothing wrong with taxing items based on demonstrable public costs, restricting young minors' access, and protecting the general public from harm. But let's dispense with the hypocrisy that abounds when sanction products accessible to those with low income, while ignoring similar products that we wealthier folks enjoy regularly with fear of judgment or punishment.

Jun 13, 2012, 4:15 PM
Jeffrey Ellis:

One additional note: let's drop the phrase "nanny state" from the conversation. The expression is actually meaningless, except as a right wing catch phrase to oppose any government regulation that displeases the ultra-conservative mob and a handful of libertarians who believe that we should go back to days before we had public health laws and required seat belts.

Jun 13, 2012, 4:18 PM

"There seems very little consistency between these positions"

This is only true if one holds that the legal vices should be strictly taxed and regulated, while simultaneously holding that the illegal vices should be legalized and unregulated.

I have never heard anyone seriously argue this, and in fact most liberal arguments for marijuana legalization seem to include the benefits to be had from taxing it, while liberal arguments for legalizing prostitution almost invariably center on the benefits that heavy regulation can bring to the trade.

Find me one serious liberal, or even any liberal besides someone on a random comment board, who advocates for the positions at the heart of your post, and I'll give you your argument. Barring that, you've set up a huge straw man which has no relevance to any real policy debate.

Jun 13, 2012, 4:48 PM

Next time you're wondering why liberals would harsh on giant sugary drinks, visit a playground and count the obese kids.

If they got that way by drinking venti suga-lattes, I'd want to do something about that, too.

P.S. They should have just banned the non-diet versions of swimming-pool size drinks.

Jun 13, 2012, 6:21 PM

"To illustrate, think of a few of the currently illegal vices: recreational drug use, gambling, prostitution. With some exceptions, the left has been in favor of legalization or decriminalization of these activities."

Really? That's funny because I certainly haven't see it. I would say that the second sentence should read somewhat the opposite:

"With some [rare] exceptions, the left has been in favor of [continuing the prohibition] of these activities."

In 2006, when Congress passed the UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act), it passed in the House 409-2, and one of the dissenters was a Republican (Jeff Flake-AZ). It passed unanimously in the Senate.

The campaign to defeat California's Proposition 19 which would have legalized marijuana in the state was led by California's leading liberal, Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

And as you noted in the article, efforts at defeating legalized prostitution have always come just as much from feminists on the left as they have from religious conservatives on the right. That's more true today than ever as many on the left mistakenly try to make the case that adult consensual prostitution and sex trafficking are one and the same.

Until I see legalization of gambling, marijuana, and prostitution prominently defended in the Democratic Party platform, I can only assume that the left still prefers the status quo.

Jun 14, 2012, 9:34 AM
John Quiggin:

The claimed inconsistency here makes no sense. Currently, policies are wildly inconsistent, with some "vices" being illegal, and others very lightly regulated. A consistent policy, based on common treatment, therefore necessarily implies tighter regulation of the second category, and legalisation, subject to regulation of the first. It's Meserve who's inconsistent here. And yes "nanny state" is a dead giveaway

Jun 23, 2012, 8:45 PM

Don't you have schools in this country? "Different than" is for preoperatonal illiterates. America has enough troubles without this..

Aug 6, 2012, 7:08 AM

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