We live in a world with ambiguity, which is why people with absolute, black-and-white ideologies always end up looking extreme. The latest case study? Soft drink regulation in New York City.
Let’s start by being clear on what the law is about. It is very specific: places that serve drinks (not grocery stores) would be unable to sell more than 16 ounce containers of sugary drinks that have more than 25 calories per ounce. Can they sell you multiple containers? Yes. Can they allow free refills? Yes. Would this really be anything more than a slight nuisance for people who need to drink more than 16 ounces at a time? No.
But morally and philosophically, it is a gray area. Should the government be putting rules on something like this? It isn’t like gun laws, which prevents one person from hurting another person. It isn’t like business regulations that prevent a company from lying to their customers. It’s more or less an attempt to prevent businesses from taking advantage of the fact that people have poor self-control. Is that really the government’s job?
Is it the government’s job to prevent businesses from taking advantage of people making bad decisions?
That’s the key question. I want you to stop for a moment, and think about the answer.
In my opinion, there is no single answer that is true in all situations. The answer is neither “The government should NEVER try to prevent people from making bad decisions” nor is it “The government should ALWAYS try to stop people from making bad decisions.”
That’s why I started out, at the top of this article, saying that absolute, black-and-white ideologies all sound impractical and extreme when they address issues in the “big picture” like this. Anyone who says that they have ONE answer to the above (bold-faced) question that is true in every circumstance is inevitably just wrong.
People who instinctively want the answer to be “NO!” (usually conservatives) always gravitate to their pet example: Will we end up with the government telling us exactly how many vegetables we are required to eat? That’s ridiculous!
People who instinctively want the answer to be “YES!” (usually liberals) always gravitate to their pet example: Will we end up with no safety regulations at all? Are you next going to say that companies should be allowed to sell toxic toys, and let the market decide? That’s ridiculous!
Those are the extremes. And they are, of course, both ridiculous.
Any ideology that is so rigid that it requires you to believe that the government can’t outlaw toxic toys for children is, quite plainly, a broken ideology. It does not take into account the way real human beings function in the real world. But similarly, any ideology so rigid that it requires you to believe that the government should mandate your dietary intake is also a broken ideology.
The only ideologies that work in the real world are those that allow you to answer “yes” sometimes, and “no” at other times, to the question of whether it’s the government’s job to protect people from making bad decisions.
This is my appeal to people: Let’s get away from having arguments as if we are trying to figure out whether the answer is “always yes” or “always no”. It’s not.
So let’s do away with arguments like “OMG this will lead to the regulation of everything!”
And let’s do away with arguments like “OMG you just don’t care about helping people!”
The real conversation is in the gray area: the fuzzy border between the “obvious yes” cases and the “obvious no” cases.
Every conversation about the details, including the Great Soft Drink Debate, needs to be taken on its own merits, without hysterics or wild analogies to extremes, to figure out on which side of that border it belongs.