Here’s the underlying question to 32 oz sugary drinks and all kinds of other issues: are there valid reasons for being told what to do when it will serve the greater good? Put another way, what’s all the fuss about Bloomberg’s attempt to impose a ban on large “sugary drinks?”
It’s a really, really cultural thing. Americans resist being told what to do like it was the bubonic plague. It’s in our DNA. But surprisingly, the majority of world cultures don’t have a knee-jerk response to regularly being told what to do. Even our good friends, the Canadians, are far less resistant to nanny than us Americans.
So, the gloriously redneck—and mean–state of Mississippi has passed a ban on bans—its cities cannot place restrictions of any sort of food or drink.
But as Sarah Conly of Bowdoin has noted in The nanny state: why we need it, it’s not about soda.
It’s because such a ban suggests that sometimes we need to be stopped from doing foolish stuff, and this has become, in contemporary American politics, highly controversial, no matter how trivial the particular issue. (Large cups of soda as symbols of human dignity? Really?)
Fully rational human beings?
What creates the frustration is our vision of ourselves as fully rational beings who are capable of making all our own decisions. The vision, however, has been shown to be completely false.
John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” wrote that the only justifiable reason for interfering in someone else’ freedom was to prevent harm to others. It’s fair to stop us when we’re acting out of ignorance and can be harmed by that. So you can stop someone from crossing a broken bridge and put speed limits on the streets. R ratings for movies, prohibiting little kids from seeing them, and limiting the smoking environment are also based on the same theory. And the crazy uncontrolled gun business? I won’t even go there.
Over the last few decades, hundreds of studies, including empirical research by the Nobel Prize Winner Kahneman, and his colleague Tversky, have shown that our decision making is inevitably flawed by serious bias and irrational prediction. The research has shown that though we have a fairly good idea of where we want to go, we often have a terrible idea of how to get there. It’s a fundamental research fact that we often don’t think clearly when it comes to the best means of achieving our objectives.
Confused by bias
The fact that we suffer from poor thinking is made clear in the emerging science of choice, consisting of careful research by social scientists over the past four decades. We dependably fail in a number of areas. For example:
. . . We suffer from an optimism bias. Anyone who has ever hired a contractor learns that everything takes longer than we think. This planning fallacy means that all our forecasts are flawed. So if you think that most people can be trusted to make decisions about food that will lead to good health and less need for health care, think again. This planning fallacy causes us to think that though bad things happen to most people, it won’t happen to us. Aaaargh!
. . . We suffer from the status quo bias. That’s just a fancy name for inertia. For a long host of reasons, people have a strong tendency to go along with the default option. We value what we have over the alternatives. That, of course, makes us react badly to new laws, even when they are an improvement over what we have.
. . . We suffer from “anchoring” our ideas in what we know. We start with something we know and are familiar with, and adjust our decision making in the direction we think appropriate. The bias occurs because the adjustments are typically and repeatedly insufficient to achieve our objectives.
Before the research we used to blame people for acting thoughtlessly—since their choices were their own fault. Now we see that these errors aren’t always because of bad character, but because of our mental inheritance.
It’s hard to give up the belief that we are completely rational. But that’s the way it is. And those are the places, historically, where government should step in and keep us from harm. So don’t misunderstand. Like Mayor Bloomberg, I’m not for bigger government, just for better governance.