The growing ambitions of the food police.

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 22 2009 11:23 AM

Then They Came for the Fresca

The growing ambitions of the food police.

A nonalcoholic sequel to the Whiskey Rebellion seems to be brewing. And Slate may be joining it. I'll call it the Fresca Rebellion, in honor of our editor, David Plotz, a hard-core addict of the citrus-flavored soft drink.

For a long time, the only discernible libertarian around here was Jack Shafer, a man unable to wean himself from speech, guns, and other annoying constitutional amendments. But lately, other folks seem to be getting a bit Ayn Randy. On Saturday, Jacob Weisberg blew the whistle on New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for trying to ban outdoor smoking in public parks ("First They Came for the Marlboros"). Yesterday, Daniel Engber went after the hypocrisy and overreaching of soda-tax advocates. And I've become such a knee-jerk defender of burgers and fries that I'm tempted to seek funding from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

What's going on here? Most of us used to be good liberals. Are we getting conservative in our old age?

I'd say it's the opposite. We're what we were five or 10 years ago: skeptics and fact-mongers with a bias for personal freedom. It's the left that's turning conservative. Well, not conservative, but pushy. Weisberg put his finger on the underlying trend: "Because Democrats hold power at the moment, they face the greater peril of paternalistic overreaching." Today's morality cops are less interested in your bedroom than your refrigerator. They're more likely to berate you for outdoor smoking than for outdoor necking. It isn't God who hates fags. It's Michael Bloomberg.

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In Engber's case, the provocation is scientific. To justify taxes on unhealthy food, the lifestyle regulators are stretching the evidence about obesity and addiction, two subjects on which Engber is burdened with contrary knowledge. Liberals like to talk about a Republican war on science, but it turns out that they're just as willing to bend facts. In wars of piety, science has no friends.

In my case, the provocation is partly scientific and partly libertarian. But mostly, it's a shift in the slippery slope. One of my basic rules is that slippery slopes run both ways. If you've never seen it, go watch that Monty Python sketch about Dennis Moore, the Robin Hood copycat who keeps stealing from the rich and giving to the poor until he realizes he's now stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. You have to notice when the balance of power and zeal has shifted from one party to the other.

Engber points out that 40 states tax soda or junk food. * And the soda taxers are becoming ever bolder. Their latest manifesto is an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, co-authored by the health commissioner of New York City, the surgeon general of Arkansas, and several others. It declares soda fair game for government intervention on the grounds that "market failures" in this area are causing "less-than-optimal production and consumption."

What exactly are these market failures? First, the authors argue,

because many persons do not fully appreciate the links between consumption of these beverages and health consequences, they make consumption decisions with imperfect information. These decisions are likely to be further distorted by the extensive marketing campaigns that advertise the benefits of consumption.

That's true. Some people don't realize how bad soda is for them. And I trust the soft-drink companies as far as I can throw them. So let's educate people about how much sugar they're drinking and what it's doing to them. But special taxes? To justify that, we'll need more. So let's move on to the authors' next rationale. They write that