Mike Bloomberg's Soda Ban and the Case for Paternalism

I am mildly opposed to Michael Bloomberg's super-size soda ban, but I think James Suroweicki makes a good case:


An executive at the American Beverage Association has dismissed the plan, saying that "150 years of research finds that people consume what they want." Actually, the research shows that what people "want" has a lot to do with how choices are framed. In one well-known study, researchers put a bowl of M&M's on the concierge desk of an apartment building, with a scoop attached and a sign below that said "Eat Your Fill." On alternating days, the experimenters changed the size of the scoop--from a tablespoon to a quarter-cup scoop, which was four times as big. If people really ate just "what they want," the amount they ate should have remained roughly the same...

Yet the mere existence of the supersize can change your idea of how much you want to drink. In a classic experiment by Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky, people asked to choose between a cheap camera and a pricier one with more features were divided more or less equally between the two options. But when a third option--a fancy, very expensive camera--was added to the mix most people went for the mid-range camera. The very expensive camera made the middle one seem less extravagant.

What Suroweicki is offering is a challenge to our concept of free will and choice. During my own weight-loss journey, it was extremely hard to accept that there were whole sections of my brain beyond my reach. But I came to realize that I was not a wizard, that "will-power" was not mana, and I was not so much a ghost in the machine, as a machine in the machine. Put under the proper amount of stress--long day, Breyer's in the fridge--I would break.

It was not so much that "choice" was an illusion, as it resided elsewhere. "Choice" lived in the super-market aisle, not at home faced with a giant bag of cookies."Free will" could be exercised in defining the field of battle, not when and how my enemies would attack. Whenever I heard them ask "Would you like that super-sized?" I knew they were really saying "It's already too late."


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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