Beware the Paternalist: The Dark Side of Mayor Bloomberg's Philosophy

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It shouldn't be surprising that a man intent on banning salt and trans fats is also complicit in "stop and frisk" and illegal spying on Muslims.

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Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the man atop New York's municipal government, is a centrist. An independent. A pragmatist. A man who holds himself above ideology. Says Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, "He doesn't give a damn about party, because he's about progress." He even plays a prominent role in the non-partisan political movement No Labels. Would our polarized nation be better served if more politicians modeled themselves after the septuagenarian billionaire?

Some people think so. There are two separate websites eager to draft him for a presidential run. Over the years, speculation about him seeking higher office has appeared in too many press outlets to chronicle. And he's managed to get elected three times in America's biggest city. In his ensuing terms in office, critics have maligned him as "Nanny Bloomberg," a moniker intended to mock his campaigns against salt, trans fats, outdoor smoking, sugary drinks, and food donations to homeless shelters that aren't first vetted for nutritional information. The libertarian objection to these policies might be summed up as follows: Even if these laws make New Yorkers safer, what gives government the right to restrict the freedom of its citizens when they aren't threatening or coercing or harming anyone save maybe themselves?

It's a question that's been posed to Bloomberg many times. "There are powers only governments can exercise, policies only governments can mandate and enforce, and results only governments can achieve," he once said. "To halt the worldwide epidemic of non-communicable diseases, governments at all levels must make healthy solutions the default social option. That is ultimately government's highest duty." It's a forthright answer: If the government can do something that makes people safer, it must. In fact, it has "no higher duty."

It's a philosophy a lot of liberals are happy to accept when applied to cigarettes, restaurant ingredients, and the like. But their tolerance for this mindset is inseparable from its darker manifestations. In the press, Bloomberg isn't nearly the bogeyman that Rudy Giuliani was during his stint as mayor, but that doesn't mean that his record on civil liberties and minority rights isn't deeply suspect. The New York Civil Liberties Union explains what is perhaps the most problematic policy of his tenure. "The police are stopping hundreds of thousands of law abiding New Yorkers every year, and the vast majority are black and Latino," the group notes on its "Stop and Frisk" issue page. "More than 4 million innocent New Yorkers were subjected to police stops and street interrogations from 2004 through 2011, and that black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD's own reports." It isn't every mayor that presides over the harassment of millions of innocent people.

More recently, it has come to light that the NYPD under Mayor Bloomberg has engaged in systematic, secret, illegal spying on many innocent citizens -- some of them outside the NYPD's jurisdiction! -- simply because they were Muslim Americans. That initiative, reminiscent of a police state, is more alarming and objectionable than the move to restrict salt and trans fats in the city. But the line separating those policies isn't nearly as clear as liberal paternalists want to believe.    

Mayor Bloomberg isn't the kind of guy who asks himself, before taking action, "Does government have a right to do this?" Instead, he asks himself, "Is this going to make people safer?" That is the underlying logic of nannying, stop and frisk, and illegal spying on Muslims. Do I think it'll make New Yorkers safer? Then government must do it. It's a brand of "non-ideological pragmatism" better suited to Singapore than the United States, yet because it isn't implicated in the culture wars -- because both Republicans and Democrats are willing to transgress against minority rights so long as the people disproportionately affected are poor or black or Muslim -- Bloomberg is lauded for his spirit of centrism and reelected in America's flagship blue city. As one defender of Bloomberg and the New York police commissioner wrote to the New York Daily News, "War does not always make allowances of convenience. The Muslim community should be thankful that its members are not placed in internment camps. After all, they, too, are being protected from attack." What a pragmatic, ideology-free assessment!

Thank goodness the prospect of Bloomberg ascending to the White House is slim, for it isn't difficult to see where his disregard for liberty and limits on government would lead. He's already on record favoring a national fingerprint and DNA database. His embrace of whatever steps he regards as making the citizenry safer is indistinguishable from the Dick Cheney-John Yoo approach to balancing liberty and security. And he is, unsurprisingly, a drug warrior to boot. 


A sound rule of thumb, for future reference, is that a man brazen enough to restrict the amount of salt chefs can use in their cooking is never going to stop there. Liberty is best served by rejecting the paternalistic, ends-justify-the-means approach to public life as soon as it arises. You never can tell what someone who speaks that way in public is telling the police to do in secret, because he's shown everyone that he's too "pragmatic" to worry about whether he's violating their rights and has no principled aversion to deciding what's best for everyone else.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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