Mayor Bloomberg is interviewed in this month’s Atlantic, and I found his discussion of paternalism problematic in a revealing way. You hear similar bad reasoning from other paternalists, so I think it’s worth discussing. Here is what he had to say about bans:
…I think it’s government’s job not to ban things but to give you information and let you make the decision. So calorie counts would do that. Portion control is a graphical or physical way of giving you information in terms of how much sugar you’re consuming, and whatever….
…We are not banning anything. All we’re saying is that restaurants and theaters can’t use cups greater than 16 ounces. So if you want to buy 32 ounces, you can buy 32 ounces, you just got to carry it back to your seat, or your table, in two cups. If the question is “Do you think they should be banning?,” that’s a separate question. That has nothing to do with portion control. We are not banning anything. And when you say “Wait a second — sure, you are restricting the size of the cups,” well, the manufacturer restricts the size of the bottle you get. Everybody does portion control. They do it with different objectives, maybe.
This is a popular way of viewing regulation, but there are a lot of problems with this line of thinking. First, in this view the government reducing choice is identical to businesses reducing choice. The most obvious problem with this is that when a business decides not to offer a particular container size it does not preclude others from doing so. If you find yourself puzzled by why people complain about government reducing choice more than businesses reducing choice then you should start here.