Commentary

Busybodies of the World, Unite!

A smoke, a drink, and maybe a bag of chips in the privacy of your own home — they’re the guilty pleasures of life for many of us. But it’s increasingly hard to escape those who want to deny them to you — for your own good.

To take one small but irritating example, this Wednesday, the city council of Elk Grove, California, will consider a bill to ban smoking in all apartment buildings, publicly or privately owned.

You might see this as an effort to “harass the people and eat out their substance.” Others prefer to call it “public health policy.”

Earlier this year, Ronda Storms, a Republican state senator in Florida, introduced legislation to bar the use of food stamps to purchase “salty snack foods” and sugary treats. She’s nicknamed the legislation the “No Twinkie Left Behind Act.”

[W]e seem to have forgotten what governments are for: to secure us in our basic rights and otherwise mind their own business.”

New York Times’ food columnist Mark Bittman praises Storms for raising the important question: “How do we regulate the consumption of dangerous foods?… The government isn’t doing its job,” he argues.

Bittman quotes Storms approvingly, “It’s just bad public policy to allow unfettered access to all kinds of food.”

True enough, as Storms argues, the long-suffering taxpayer is on the hook for food-stamp purchases — as well as treatments for Type 2 diabetes — and he who pays the piper gets to call the tune.

But that’s something to worry about, given the recent expansion of government control of and funding for health care — and it’s particularly salient this week, as the Supreme Court considers the arguments on the constitutionality of Obamacare in HHS v. Florida.

In her confirmation hearing before her elevation to the Supreme Court, then-solicitor general Elena Kagan hardly inspired confidence when she equivocated on whether a law requiring Americans to eat their vegetables would be constitutional.

But whether or not the Court endorses the administration’s limitless version of the Commerce Clause, the administration is already using stimulus funds and Obamacare dollars to push lifestyle changes at the local level. Earlier this year, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg sought federal dollars in the form of Obamacare “community transformation grants” to fund a crackdown on “exposure to alcohol products.” In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funneled over $16 million to Los Angeles for programs “encouraging comprehensive smoke-free outdoor air policies.”

Obama’s CDC head, who used to be Mayor Bloomberg’s health adviser, declared in 2006 that “When anyone dies at an early age from a preventable cause in New York City, it’s my fault.” Now he cares about you on a national scale.

Meanwhile, across the pond, the UK’s Cameron-Clegg government, which once proclaimed that it would “tear through the statute books” eliminating invasive laws and “illegitimate advances of the state,” is now contemplating setting a minimum price for alcohol. The minimum would be set low at first — 40p per unit of alcohol — but that’s “a trojan horse,” writes Chris Snowdon in City A.M.: “Once it becomes law, the temperance lobby will have a powerful weapon with which to incrementally raise prices.”

We used to talk about “Anglo-American liberty.” But from Elk Grove to Westminster, we seem to have forgotten what governments are for: to secure us in our basic rights and otherwise mind their own business.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.