A quick word in defense of the Nanny State

New York Mayor Michael (Don’t Call Me “Mike”) Bloomberg today announced regulations banning over-sized sugared drinks for sale in the city. Predictably many screamed about the terrors of government over-regulation and the ever-increasing Nanny State.

I generally share those sentiments, but have had something of a recent conversion.

Society shares all the costs of the poor choices that its members make, from those that want to ride motorcycles without helmets, to those that enjoy a Big Gulp or six. When the motorcyclist (inevitably) dumps his bike and ends up in the emergency room, his insurance company (if he has one) foots the bill–and passes those costs onto the rest of the insurance pool in the form of higher premiums. Those that eat and drink to excess those things that have been proven beyond question to advance diabetes and heart disease and other medical maladies are not the only ones paying the price for their decisions. We all are. What we have is a “free rider” problem. Those that indulge in risky behaviors pay only their insurance premiums while the rest of us face increased costs from their choices. It is the nature of insurance; to spread the risk over a large pool. Some people win and some people lose in the bargain. There’s a reason that life insurance companies want to know up-front if you’ve jumped out of a perfectly good plane. If you’re one of “those people” perhaps we shouldn’t be offering to insure your life. The same principle applies to health and health insurance.

Doesn’t it make sense at some elementary level to attempt to protect the balance of the pool from the poor choices of others? Sure there are lots of problems with what Mayor Bloomberg is trying to accomplish. The practicality of enforcement is low, especially when you consider things like fountain drinks and that there is no proposed limit on the amount of diet drinks you can purchase (buy one diet drink in a giant cup, but “just happen” to fill it up with the sugared drink and viola!).

The sense that we’re all “free” to do what we please is and has always been a fallacy. As Elizabeth Warren pointed out in another context, no one succeeds alone. We are all linked. We are all in one pool. Breathing the same air and drinking the same water. What we do inevitably effects others. Mayor Bloomberg is naive and maybe a bit crazy to try this, but if people aren’t willing to take care of themselves, perhaps the ultimate payer–the government, as a representative of those of us footing the bill–should.

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