New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
’s tireless search for new liberties to attack met some resistance early this week when State Supreme CourtJustice Milton Tingling
struck down his ban on sugary drinks as “arbitrary and capricious.” Judge Tingling
argued that the unpopular legislation, speckled with loopholes and inconsistencies, resulted in “uneven enforcement even within a particular city block, much less the city as a whole.” Apparently Mr. Bloomberg
is more enthusiastic than competent when it comes to depriving others of routine freedoms.
Judge Tingling’s decision turns out to be particularly instructive since it could double as a philosophical takedown of Mr. Bloomberg’s brand of “nudging paternalism” as a whole. The mayor’s attempted micromanagement of daily life presumes not only moral superiority, but also basic bureaucratic proficiency. It takes some real logistical skill to regulate a complex swarm of civic minutiae. One powerful, practical argument against intrusive liberalism is that government is simply not nimble enough for this kind of superintendence. Mr. Bloomberg defended his policies as “groundbreaking,” but they don’t even count as well-written.
In addition to being ineffective, Mr. Bloomberg’s schoolmarmish interdictions dismiss the legal limits of government action. Judge Tingling pointed out that the government’s objective to improve public health is so vague it would “leave its authority to define, create, mandate and enforce only limited by its own imagination.” Yet constitutional limits are important precisely because technocrats have such active imaginations when it comes to conjuring new ways to replace individual prerogative with centralized control. The predictable result, according to Judge Tingling, would be an “administrative Leviathan.” You don’t need to read Hobbes to know that’s bad.
Mr. Bloomberg’s own sweeping justification for his overreach is as vacuous as it is melodramatic: “It would be irresponsible not to do everything we can to save lives.” Is the indiscriminate banning of some sugary drinks — and the neglect of others — really going to save lives? Moreover, does Mr. Bloomberg’s “everything we can” include strident dismissal of due process, neglect of the city’s separation of powers and denial of the basic dignity of human choice?
As a justification for restricting individual liberty, the appeal to public health is amorphous at best. It is specifically designed to circumvent the limits of the law, digging legalistic tunnels under the fence of constitutional restriction.
The oversized role government now plays in health care is a key accomplice. One basic foundation of modern liberalism is the distinction, as articulated by John Stuart Mill, between “self-regarding” and other-regarding” action. As the principle goes, the government has a right to restrain citizens engaged in behavior that negatively affects others, but should refrain from interference as long as people’s actions only harm themselves. Government’s continued intrusion in private health care obliterates this distinction, making any action ultimately “other-regarding” since health-related costs are essentially pooled in the collective tax burden.
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