Because we know your life better than you

Today’s news brought one of those amazing statements by a person who just can’t stand to see other people having fun.

Stuff reports that the average New Zealander drank 115 liters of sugary drinks last year, “despite constant lobbying against sugary soft drinks”.

Anyone who believes people can think for themselves would conclude that consumers had seen the lobbying, considered the health costs and reached their own conclusions, which add up to around one tall glass of fruit juice a day. Unfortunately the lobby group in question doesn’t see things that way (emphasis added):

Gerhard Sundborn, a spokesman for lobby group Fizz, said the growing rate at which New Zealanders drank sugary soft drinks was still concerning, particularly with the goal of zero per cent consumption of sugary drinks by 2025.

Fizz advocates stopping the availability of sugary drinks in New Zealand

“Our end game is to bring sugary fizzy drink consumption down to zero in 2025, similar to the end game for tobacco consumption,” he said.

Of course zero consumption is self-evidently the optimal outcome! Why should we question that assumption or demand evidence? The article is devoid of even one health-related claim about sugar (or tobacco). Both products have become so demonised that apparently no one bothers to question why eradication is desirable, never mind justified. And heaven forbid anyone should mention the benefit derived from such products by free individuals with the power to choose their own consumption bundles. We’ve all been brainwashed into assuming these “bad” goods deliver no benefit and all consumption is Wrong.

Even if you accept that the cost to the health system from unhealthy behaviours constitutes an externality that should be taxed, you’d never set zero consumption as an aim unless your true aim was to ruin other people’s fun. Maybe the socially optimal level of consumption is lower than what we currently see, but while someone somewhere enjoys these products, it will never be zero. Lobby groups, though, can’t stand the idea that anyone should have the ability to choose an unhealthy behaviour under any circumstances. It doesn’t matter if you’re about to go to prison or start a raw-vege diet or are waiting for death from a serious illness: no freedom of choice for you! Your preferences don’t matter, because we know your life better than you, and we can’t have you gaining one bean of pleasure from that sinful fruit juice.

This attitude is harmful in more ways than one: it also deprives us of the opportunity to learn from the lobbying efforts already conducted. Maybe such “education” has led people to choose lower consumption than they would have otherwise. But we’ll never know, because these people are not interested in evidence. They’ll never admit that touting the health risks of a behaviour can at best lead consumers to reweight their choices away from that behaviour, and so they’ll never allow any attempt to measure the degree of reweighting. That means we’ll never know how to use that kind of advertising effectively to convey genuinely useful information about healthy behaviours (to encourage hand washing, say, or removal of potential mosquito habitats in tropical disease areas).

Some people just get off on seeing others submit to their will. To celebrate my own free will, I wrote this while enjoying a delicious fizzy orange drink. Later I might drive to a friend’s house to eat chocolate and watch a movie that includes racial stereotyping: three other activities, all with social costs and private benefits, that these social control freaks would love to see banned if they could.

See also Eric Crampton on freedom of choice in a less cheerful context.