Earlier this week, as I was checking my Facebook, I noticed a startling number of distressed status updates coming from many of my high school friends. At first, I was confused by the ambiguous cries of despair, but with a little further investigation, I discovered the cause of the widespread anguish — Four Loko was banned in New York. Now illegal in five states, with legislation pending in others (including Connecticut), Four Loko is rapidly being legislated out of existence. Love it or hate it, the beverage and its equivalents are on the fast track towards extinction.
This is far from an isolated incident, and Four Loko is just the most recent casualty of an ever-expanding reach of government. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has banned trans-fats and waged a “war on salt.” In Washington, D.C., there is a sin tax on soda and candy. In select cities of California, toys are not allowed in happy meals. Again and again, across this country, government is telling us what we can or can’t put into our bodies.
Consumption, not abortion or gay marriage, is the defining social issue of our generation. From forbidding us from drinking Four Loko to requiring us to purchase a domestic service (health care), government is incrementally seizing a self-perpetuated mandate of individual social planning. Our generation has a crucial and necessary opportunity to stand in the way of this trend and yell, “Stop.”
The expansion of government’s scope into private individual conduct needs to be evaluated in the framework of both principle and practice. With regards to the latter, government regulation and prohibition is counterproductive to its desired social ends. Despite the best efforts of the state, cultural mores and human impulses cannot be legislated out of the national psyche. Prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th century augmented the problem and drove it underground, proliferating both crime and instability. History is repeating itself in our daft war on drugs as well as our prohibition of the world’s oldest profession — the conduct remains, but it inherits criminal and dangerous elements.
The demand for behavior-enabling agents, be it for an evening companion or to get blackout drunk, remains regardless of government interference. Regulations and interdictions do not eliminate suppliers, but rather fuel the necessity to innovate in the free market. For example, our parents’ generation wouldn’t have thought to mix cough syrup and alcohol to get a better buzz — but just hike the drinking age up to 21 and increase various regulations, and now we find it in punch bowls across America. It is not that their generation was more prone to Amish tendencies (judging from “Animal House”), but that human desires exist and as long as they are there, we will conceive of ways to accommodate them.
Moreover, not only is government’s regulation of private conduct inefficient, but it goes far beyond the state’s acceptable role. Private conduct, which has no direct effect on public well-being, should fall outside of government. Granted, through the justice system, we have given government the mandate to deem what is right and what is wrong. However, the context of that power must be established. The dichotomy of appropriate behavior in a society must be judged in its relation to civil order. Government should not be the arbiter of morality.
Having pitched the complete governmental withdrawal from private conduct and relevant products before, I’ve noticed that one objection continually arises: removing government from protecting the ill-informed, young or poverty-stricken from making bad decisions will lead to their widespread, and inevitable, demise. However, prohibition (whose faults prevent it, as I noted earlier, from solving anything) and education are two very different concepts. I have no problem with the state taking it upon itself, be it in the classroom or through public advertising, to educate our populace on the facets of good health.
Nevertheless, I say this with a caveat, emphasizing the line between punitive and proper messages. We should educate about the dangers of excess, but not selectively target certain industries for some product’s intrinsic evil. This picking and choosing is inconsistent, and therefore unfair: we slap grotesque pictures of cancer on cigarette boxes but leave other products, like Happy Meals or Twinkies, alone (why no picture of a diabetic’s removed foot?) for subjective reasons. The potential of abuse by the few should not negate the freedom of the many. There is a noble goal in striving to encourage informed decisions, but we must fundamentally preserve the freedom to make those decisions.
Our generation can discover a middle ground by embracing social libertarianism. In fact, the left more often echoes this view of government than the right — either calling for government to keep off a woman’s body or to remain out of the marriage question. An acceptance of social libertarianism is a belief not only in the inherent reason of the individual, but a rejection of governmentally coerced conduct. There is a valid discussion to be had about the extent of government’s influence on behavior through varying forms of education, but choice must ultimately be preserved. Whether the issue is gay marriage or controlled substances, liberty cannot exist without sovereignty being preserved at the individual level.
Harry Graver is a freshman in Davenport College.