As often as you drink this cup . . .
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
March 11, 2013 - Commenting on New York’s impending restriction on container size for sugary drinks, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Sunday, “all we’re doing in New York is reminding you that it’s not in your interest to have too many empty calories.” Bloomberg went on to explain that “what government’s trying to do is to inform you that if you’re overweight and you have all these empty calories and you keep eating, that your health is going to suffer and you’re going to live a not as healthy and a shorter life.”
Without a doubt, it is a role of the state to seek the common good. As a matter of philosophical necessity, given the fallen nature of human beings, this will inevitably require that the individual liberty of some must, at times, be restricted for the sake of the well-being of the whole. In other words, if one desires to have a society at all, legislating with a view toward the common good (i.e., morality) is unavoidable.
However, it does not follow that government ought to use the coercive power of the state to legislate about every possible matter related to the common good. For there are times when the good that accrues by restricting individual liberty through the coercive power of the state simply does not outweigh the burden(s) wrought by the restriction(s). To some extent, statecraft is the art of making determinations about such relative weights and acting thereon.
Critics of the New York regulations will think Bloomberg mistaken in his judgment about the relative good(s) achieved by the burden of being restricted to 16 ounces of soda per container. Supporters will continue to laud the legislation for its forward-looking interest in public health (an indisputable dimension of the common good).
Sadly, what gets lost in the narrow debate about individual liberty vis-à-vis state interests is a much deeper irony reflected in Bloomberg’s remarks when set against the realities of civic life in New York. The irony is this. Bloomberg’s rationale for caloric restriction is pastoral. Pastors (and parents) care genuinely for the well-being of those in their charge. Thus, the good pastor, much like the Apostle Peter in his second letter, “reminds” those in his charge what is in the interest of their moral and spiritual well-being. Good pastors (like good mothers) do this out of love – merely because they want to see those they love lead happy and healthy lives. So, for Bloomberg, the New York law is a sacrament; it is a visible sign (ironically, a cup!) that reminds the parishioners of New York City establishments of what is good for them.
The irony, of course, is that the moral imperative in Bloomberg’s remarks is utterly vacuous. It expresses a moral concern for the well-being of New York citizenry that is emptier than the calories the law seeks to restrict. Ask this. Does the city of New York have an equally passionate concern for restricting citizens’ access to pornographic material? The answer, of course, is no. And this is because New York (much like the rest of the industrialized West) has long since abandoned the idea of legislating toward a conception of the common good that has any meaningful connection to what C.S. Lewis called, “the Tao.”
In effect, New York (like the industrialized West as a whole) has only one interest: namely, the perpetuation of the biological health of those citizens of New York who manage to survive gestation. Stripped of its moral dimension, the notion of the common good reduces to mere public health. Meanwhile, the latter takes on all the rhetorical gravity of moral good and evil. New York is effectively insisting that its citizens live, but it refuses to tell them what to live for. It is no wonder that so many chafe under such tyranny. It is akin to eternal perdition.