The truth is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with paternalistic government or, in the harsher, feminized shorthand of its detractors, the “nanny state.” Parents and nannies can be good or bad. No adult likes to be told how to live his life, but most of us benefit from baby authoritarianism far more than we’d like to admit. The government doesn’t want me talking on the phone while I drive? I can’t say I’ve given that vice up completely, but fear of getting ticketed makes me do it a lot less than I used to, and I may live longer as a result. The government wants me eating less salt? I don’t live in New York, but, when I heard Bloomberg was tightening the noose, I reexamined my attachment to sodium chloride and found it to be fairly weak. Bloomberg didn’t want Hitchens to smoke? Hitchens, who died this past December of throat cancer, went to his grave believing his vices remained none of Bloomberg’s business. But after being diagnosed in 2010, he conceded unsentimentally that he had long “been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction.” If New York City regulations persuade some of his acolytes to give up cigarettes and thereby avoid his fate, don’t let’s consider his legacy tarnished.
What about when the nanny state instructs us to behave in accordance with its views of morality? I disagree with conservative aspirations to install the nanny state in my bedroom, but I wouldn’t necessarily begrudge the state its power to play moral cop elsewhere. I approve of the government prohibition against the selling of organs, and I would never want the government to stop discouraging illicit drug use and prostitution (though I might quibble with its methods). These prohibitions all constitute the government helping to define the nation’s collective values, which is entirely legitimate.
Public health paternalism can be carried too far, but in the current anti-regulatory political environment, I don’t waste a lot of time worrying about that. Bloomberg is never going to ban soda altogether; even if he wanted to, he would find the political opposition too great. (He couldn’t even persuade the state legislature to pass a sin tax.) All his nanny state can plausibly achieve is to make it slightly more difficult to drink soda in preposterous quantities.