During the controversy over the proposed ban of sugary drinks over 16 ounces in New York City, Jon Stewart pointed out that if Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban and Governor Cuomo’s marijuana decriminalization both pass, a 17-ounce soda will draw a larger fine ($200) than a 25-gram bag of marijuana ($100). It was a funny bit, but it reveals a larger, unfortunate fact of recent liberalism: We’ve been incoherent and hypocritical in our policies toward vices.
But my worry is that progressives, who correctly pride themselves on a tradition of pragmatism and sound public policy, are increasingly letting cultural and temperamental biases cloud their preferences when it comes to regulation of vices. I think most would agree that liberals find psychoactive drugs and various forms of recreational sex somehow “better” than smoking or unhealthy fast-food food consumption. Policy preferences have followed.
Even more worrying is the classist element that sometimes permeates these laws. Those with a yearly income lower than $24,000 have a smoking rate above 30 percent, while those who make more than $60,000 a year are 16 percent or lower. Fast-food consumption rises as household income rises up to $60,000, but falls as income increases past that. The very cheap alcohol-caffeine combination of Four Loko was banned out of existence, while someone able to pay more can walk into a bar and order a rum and coke or vodka and Red Bull. Proponents of these restrictions sometimes argue that obesity or alcoholism are greater problems among the poor, but that seems like weak tea as a justification for blatantly hypocritical policies.
But more important than income level is a kind of cultural elitism. Someone who buys a 20-ounce, 330-calorie Starbucks cinnamon dolce latte is viewed differently than someone buying a 20-ounce, 290-calorie Mountain Dew from McDonald’s. The latte would be allowed under Bloomberg’s ban, the Mountain Dew not. Similarly, marijuana smoking has a cultural cachet that cigarettes have lost. In fact teenagers now smoke pot more than they smoke cigarettes.