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nanny state

Anthony Randazzo at Reason reviews Mark White’s new book The Manipulation of Choice: Ethics and Libertarian Paternalism. And in today’s Wall Street Journal, Donald Boudreaux reviews Cass Sunstein’s new book on regulation and paternalism, Simpler. Related here.

Per the Los Angeles Times: “New research [on which more -- W.O.] shows that prompting beverage makers to sell sodas in smaller packages and bundle them as a single unit actually encourages consumers to buy more soda — and gulp down more calories — than they would have consumed without the ban.”

I’ve done a new Cato podcast with interviewer Caleb Brown discussing Cass Sunstein’s attempts (channeling the behavioral economics literature) to distinguish a softer, less threatening “paternalism of means” from a bossy, intrusive “paternalism of ends.” I don’t think the distinction really works in practice, but as usual with Sunstein’s work, it’s at least worth hearing out. I go on to recommend the work of Joshua Wright and Douglas Ginsburg challenging the new behavioral economics, and suggest that while the scholars of the behavioral economics school do make some headway in showing that private choice is fallible and mistake-ridden, they are less successful at showing that trained experts can improve on these choices without touching off new unintended consequences.


A Bowdoin professor named Sarah Conly has written a book called Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, and recently took to the pages of the New York Times to argue (which sounds consistent with the book’s thesis) in favor of the Bloomberg soda ban and other interventions. Cato’s Trevor Burrus takes exception and perhaps indicating how extreme Conly’s positions are, even Cass Sunstein declines to get on board.


Food roundup

by Walter Olson on March 19, 2013

  • If you thought “finger in chili” was bad, meet the Utah couple arrested on charges of planting razor blade shards in doughnuts and swallowing some [KSL, Daily Mail]
  • My talk a few weeks ago as part of Cato Institute panel on nanny state [YouTube, Bruce Majors]
  • New Reason-RUPE public opinion survey finds public broadly opposed to food and drink bans [Sullum]
  • Feds’ bad advice on polyunsaturated fat: more damaging than any mass tort in sight? [David Oliver] More: Hans Bader.
  • Coroner blames woman’s death on Coca-Cola addiction [TV NZ] Monster Beverage: natural causes, not caffeine toxicity, killed Maryland teen [Reuters, NYT, earlier] More: Jacob Sullum.
  • Oh, CSPI, thou contradictest thyself [Baylen Linnekin; more from him on parents' and kids' food choices quoting me, NYC soda ban]
  • “Bloomberg limits seder portions” [Purim spoof, New York Jewish Week]
  • Kelly Brownell, guru of obesity-reduction-through-coercion formerly based at Yale, named dean of public policy school at Duke;
  • “A Knife, a Walmart Birthday Cake and a Frenzy of Overreaction” [Free-Range Kids] Mardi Gras perennial: can you buy king cake with baby figurine already in it? [same, earlier]
  • Now they tell us: NYT book review not conspicuously enthusiastic about Michael Moss anti-food-biz book hyped to the rafters in NYT magazine three weeks earlier [Ira Stoll, SmarterTimes, our take]


[cross-posted from Cato at Liberty]

I’m at the Commentary magazine blog this morning with a second bite (second gulp?) at the NYC soda ban ruling. This time I look at the separation-of-powers angle, and at the way Judge Milton Tingling, Jr.’s ruling addressed the overgrown ambitions of some in the “public health” community to control more and more of life. Although the decision did not forestall the New York City Council from adopting nanny-state regulations in the future should it see fit, I argue,

…yesterday’s decision should cheer us for other reasons. It holds the Gotham administration accountable for overstepping the separation of powers, an important principle in the safeguarding of liberty. (In a profile of Judge Tingling, the New York Times notes that he’s been skeptical of government claims to power in a number of other cases as well.)

Under separation of powers as generally understood at the time of the Framers, an executive agency cannot enact new legislation on its own, that being a role constitutionally reserved for the legislature. Especially during the Progressive Era and New Deal, these barriers were eroded as administrative agencies claimed a power to issue regulations that looked more and more like traditional legislation, under powers deemed to have been delegated by the legislature. Still, there are some limits, both under the U.S. Constitution and in New York (which under a 1987 case called Boreali v. Axelrod applies its own, quirky standard in evaluating whether a regulation oversteps the separation of powers.) And those limits to delegation were at the heart of the soda case.

The New York City Health Department was asserting a breathtakingly broad definition of its powers, on the grounds that successive city charters give it sweeping authority to address all matters relating to health. Under the interpretation advanced by Bloomberg’s lawyers, this vague charter language would empower the department to issue pretty much whatever diktats it pleases for New Yorkers to obey on any topic somehow related to advancing health….

Looking at cases where the agency’s authority to act had been upheld, the judge noted instances of emergencies, particularly those relating to epidemics of contagious or communicable diseases. … In that legal finding is the germ of a much-needed rebuke to some actors in the public-health movement, who have taken the centuries of moral and practical authority originally built up by their colleagues from the fight against epidemic infectious disease and dubiously sought to apply it to a dozen other health-related questions of life and lifestyle, including not only doughnuts, soft drinks and salty snacks but also such supposed “disease vectors” as gun ownership and overreliance on cars for commuting.

Read the whole thing at Commentary here. Background in yesterday’s post here (& Alex Adrianson, Heritage).


In a sweeping decision, trial court judge Milton Tingling has struck down the ban on sugary drinks decreed by the New York City Department of Health, which had been scheduled to go into effect tomorrow. I discuss the ruling in a Cato podcast above. I’m also quoted by Jillian Kay Melchior at National Review Online:

It was a sweeping ruling, because the judge said not only was the ban arbitrary and capricious, but it also went beyond the public-health agency’s powers under the statute. It meant that, even if Bloomberg went back and got a better factual justification for it, he had no legal right to do it. The agency just plain lacked the power. It means that the powers that public-health agencies claim because of emergency dangers like a raging epidemic — they don’t get to rule by dictate about other elements of our life that are not emergencies.

Other coverage: New York Post, CBS New York, Moin Yahya, David Henderson. As the law’s effective date approached, city residents were learning more about its unpleasant effects on such everyday activities as ordering beverages to split with pizza delivery, mixers at nightclubs, table pitchers to serve kids’ birthday parties, and, most recently, coffee, the subject of a virally famous poster from the local Dunkin’ Donuts operation.

P.S. And now I’ve got a Daily Caller piece out on the decision. See follow-up post here.


As I noted yesterday here and at Cato at Liberty on Wednesday, GWU law prof John Banzhaf sent out a press release boasting of having assigned undergrads to lobby for NYC-style soda bans or, alternatively, other ventures in “obesity policy.” Some reactions from Robby Soave at the Daily Caller, Katharine Mangu-Ward at Reason (“I’m gonna guess there aren’t a lot of libertarians in his class”), George Leef at Phi Beta Cons, Center for Consumer Freedom (Banzhaf hoping to stir pot for high-stakes litigation), Jamie Weinstein/Daily Caller (“There are radical Pakistani madrassas that are more intellectually open than Professor Banzhaf’s class sounds,”) and on Twitter from @rogerkimball (“Where’s the outrage?”) and @keepfoodlegal (“Vile. Illegal, too?”) And Prof. Bainbridge:

I wonder what people would say if I made my students write letters to their Congressman supporting Senator Shelby’s Dodd-Frank corrections bills? Actually, I don’t wonder. they’d say I was abusing my power. And they’d be right. Only someone blinded by their own self-righteous arrogance would fail to see the gross impropriety here.

Now Banzhaf has sent out another press release, which aside from tossing an inaccurate brickbat or two at my motivations for challenging him, takes care to specify — as his earlier press release did not — that students in the class are free to propose lobbying for at least some deregulatory ideas. The two examples he gives are as follows: “students could also ask legislators to reduce limits on the sale of items from food trucks [or] cut back on unnecessary food-related regulations.” Whether liberty-minded students could actually get course credit for lobbying on behalf of food-related positions that Banzhaf opposes — as distinct from seeking out some subtopic in the field where he happens to agree with them — remains unclear.


A press release from George Washington University Prof. John Banzhaf describes his latest stunt as follows: “Undergrads Required To Lobby For Obama Policy.” In this case, it’s more for a policy identified with Michael Bloomberg — limits on the size of sweetened drinks — which students were asked to promote in letters to their own lawmakers. I’ve got a write-up at Cato at Liberty, where I list some of the other occasions on which Overlawyered readers have met the gadfly professor. (& Katherine Mangu-Ward, Center for Consumer Freedom) Update: many reactions, including another press release from Prof. Banzhaf.


Maryland bicycling advocates can tell the difference, and are opposing a proposal by Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore) to mandate helmet use. There’s a lesson somewhere in there, or so I surmise in my new Cato post. Update: more details from an opponent.


Food and farm roundup

by Walter Olson on February 6, 2013

  • In Washington, DC today? Come to Cato New Media lunch where I’ll be on a panel on the nanny state;
  • Future of food freedom looking brighter these days at state level [Baylen Linnekin] Polls looking good for it, too [same] “The FDA’s Pathetic Food Safety Proposal” [same]
  • “Class claim against Crock-Pot seems a crock” [Sean Wajert]
  • USDA issues proposed rules on vending machine fare and other school “competitive foods” [Lunch Tray, SmarterTimes, Julie Gunlock/IWF (good news: rules don't address bake sales and birthday cupcakes. Bad news: why is this Washington's business at all?)]
  • Lawyer suing Subway over “Footlong” also handled controversial red-light camera action [NJLRA]
  • So, lung, it’s been good to know you: fans of authentic Scottish haggis still vexed by US ban [BBC]
  • “New Year, New Hot Coffee Case” [Abnormal Use]

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Megan McArdle, in her annual holiday guide to kitchen gadget buying:

If you don’t want quite this much capacity — if you’re cooking for one or two, and hate leftovers — then I recommend getting an older (pre-1990) crockpot off of eBay. In recent years, food safety regulations and fear of liability has caused manufacturers to raise the heat on their slow cookers, which means the food cooks faster. I entertain enough that I reluctantly gave up lower heat for larger capacity (old crockpots tend to come in 2-3 quart sizes, rather than the 5-6 quarts that are standard now.) But only an older crockpot will give you really low and slow cooking.


Ban smoking entirely, or issue licenses to smokers? In some quarters of the public-health world, those appear to be the end points of the spectrum of debate as they pursue the “endgame” of a “tobacco-free society.” [Jacob Sullum]


If present trends continue, we’ll wind up with states where pot is legal and munchies aren’t.

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Says the sponsor of Brookline, Mass.’s proposed Styrofoam ban. [Boston Globe via Ira Stoll; earlier on Concord water bottle ban]

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For now, at least [Ira Stoll, earlier].

Related: “Soda Noir,” Owen Smith’s funny cover illustration for the June 18 New Yorker. And George Will reveals in his column that as part of its stimulus program the federal government spent millions of dollars on campaigns at the local and state level to crack down on sweetened drinks, a policy of dubious legality given that existing law “prohibits the use of federal funds ‘to influence in any manner … an official of any government, to favor, adopt, or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation, law, ratification, policy, or appropriation.'” [earlier here, here]


Maryland roundup

by Walter Olson on August 14, 2012

I’ve been writing more lately on policy issues arising in my adopted state, such as the boat tax and Baltimore’s fight with liquor stores, and you can keep up by following my local Twitter account @walterolsonmd:

  • If you think the current federal crusade on disparate minority school discipline rates is unreasonable, check out the Maryland state board of education’s even loopier plans for racial quotas in discipline [Hans Bader and letter, Roger Clegg/Center for Equal Opportunity] “However, there’s no plan for gender balance in school discipline.” [Joanne Jacobs]
  • After the state’s high court stigmatized pit bulls as distinctively dangerous, the state legislature has (as warned of in this space) reacted by extending liability to owners of all dogs, “first bite” or not [WaPo] “The trial lawyer’s expert just testified he sees dogs as a man or woman’s ego on the end of a leash.” [Mike Smigiel]
  • A Washington Post article asks: “Is the ‘nanny state’ in Montgomery working?” (No, but it makes councilors in the affluent liberal redoubt feel good about themselves.) And even in Montgomery, councilman George Leventhal (D-At Large) spots a Laffer Curve [Dan Mitchell, Cato at Liberty]
  • Also in Montgomery, county slates vote next month on union-backed bill to require service contractors to take over employment of displaced workers for 90 days [Gazette] Leventhal is caustic: “I do not only work for SEIU 32BJ. My colleagues may feel they do.” [Rachel Baye, Examiner]
  • Despite its solicitude for the SEIU, the county’s concern for low-income workers has its limits, as when property owners seek to increase the stock of affordable housing near jobs by dividing one-family residences into two-family [Ben Ross, Greater Greater Washington]
  • “Doctors, hospitals concerned about hefty malpractice awards” [Baltimore Sun]
  • MD public pension planners whistle through graveyard [Hayley Peterson, Washington Examiner, Tom Coale/HoCoRising, Ivan Osorio, CEI "Open Market"] The state still hasn’t shaken its AAA bond rating, but Annapolis lawmakers are working to change that by unionizing more state workers [Washington Times]


Motorcycle helmet laws

by Walter Olson on June 12, 2012

The folks at Fair Warning are very sad that an organized motorcyclist community considers them an intrusion on liberty and has been getting states to repeal them.


Caleb Brown interviews me in this new Cato Institute podcast, in which we discuss the futility of Mayor Bloomberg’s effort to turn NYC soda fans into two-fisted drinkers (that is, they’ll need to carry one in each hand); the role of federal grants from the Obama administration; and more broadly, the creepily intrusive ambitions of the New York City Health Department. If the embedded version doesn’t work, you can find it here.

Related: “The issue is freedom, not soft drinks.” [Jonathan Tobin, Commentary]. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” wrote John Stuart Mill [Patrick Basham, U.S. News] A new study finds restricting people’s junk food choices doesn’t help them lose weight [Reuters] James Lileks offers a helpful picture gallery distinguishing “Poison” from “Not Poison,” and classes a-burger-and-a-Coke in the latter category. Contrariwise, a ban backer at the Daily Beast is happy to contemplate future rules limiting hamburger sizes: “why not? Eight- and ten-ounce burgers are sick things.” And from earldean71: “If history is any guide at least one Atlanta suburb will pass an ordinance requiring giant soda drinks if NYC has a ban.” Earlier here, here, here, here, etc.

More: Watch me on the video version, just up on YouTube: