Sugar, government and democracy

The British government, among others, is trying to figure out how to make people eat less sugar.

I propose a better question: Have we all gone completely mad and legally incapable? What the fuck happened to sui iuris?

Feel free to call me old-fashioned, but I believe the proper role of government is limited to saying “Look folks, we have good evidence sugar is bad for you, so eat less if you want to be healthy.” That’s it.

If individual people fail to act on the information, that is their problem – and their choice.

Of course an issue arises when they impose costs on others by requiring extensive (and expensive) medical care. In which case, we need to get clearly self-inflicted conditions out of public health insurance schemes. Just as no reasonable insurance company would insure the house of an arsonist, no public insurance scheme should cover self-destructive lifestyles. Problem solved.

At any rate, it certainly isn’t the business of governments to concoct “nudges”, “choice design” and other fashionable euphemisms for social engineering to micromanage peoples’ lives. It is the screaming definition of a nanny state.

For those new to the term, “nudges”, or subtle behavioral modification, are a fashionable tool of public policy based on behavioral economics (a fledgling branch of science we are going to improve by intense ridicule in the near future). The idea of subtly controlling people without their consent, or awareness, is understandably attractive to politicians (and chronically power-envious social scientists, to the degree “social scientists” isn’t an oxymoron). But it’s a huge paradigmatic mistake which betrays an inherently totalitarian mindset that we’re failing to catch because the methods are subtle. The substance is absolutist, being fundamentally a rebranding of a regimented, two-caste society composed of Guardians and Wards.

In other words, the “nudgers’” philosophy is that the bad thing about Stalin was not the feudal attitude to social organisation, but that his methods were too harsh.

Well, yes, that too. But the idea of an unfree society is a bigger problem than the gulags and barbed wire, an argument that I am morally entitled to raise since my grandfather was a political prisoner in communist uranium mines.

I don’t care how velvety the glove on the iron fist is. Such condescension is perhaps worse for human dignity than outright oppression.

It is not the government’s job to protect us from ourselves, but it will forever be it’s ambition – and an excuse to tax and disenfranchise.

There’s a fundamental democratic legitimacy problem with “nudges”. Governments simply do not have the mandate to do anything of the sort. Had there been a referendum asking “Do you want to give your government the power to use cutting-edge psychological research to subtly manipulate you for your own benefit?“, and a majority voted “yes”, my objections would have been milder (apart from those regarding the legitimacy and legality of democratically deciding, Palpatine-style, for a de-facto abolition of democracy).

But no such question was ever asked. I doubt many would consent, which is exactly why it was never asked. Without sufficient reflection of the fact the use of nudges constitutes an unilateral redrawing of the social contract, the power and mandate was simply assumed. In this, our public servants are getting emphatically out of hand.

If such a referendum is planned for the future, I’d like to be informed sufficiently in advance so that I might move to another country, and ideally, planet.

No longer do public servants consider themselves the hired managers of our shared resources, the citizens’ collective employees, janitors of the res publica. They are now arrogating the infantilising role of shepherd, chaperone and elder sibling. Regressive feudalism is rampant. And the only appropriate response is a firm slap on the wrist.

What is disturbing in the British case is that it’s the Tories, of all parties, doing it. I wouldn’t be as surprised if it was Labour, which has traditionally, and in great contrast to most people, considered the works of Orwell and Huxley instruction manuals rather than cautionary tales. But when nominally classical-liberal or conservative parties engage in that kind of babystting nonsense, it shows how the unreflected undertone of contemporary politics is Huxleyan benevolent totalitarianism, substituting a stern glance and a firm push of a velvet glove for the boot on the face of Orwell. Yet both are equally at odds with free society.

Mr. Musk, please hurry up with that Mars rocket, I want to go to a planet that’s less red.

As James Bond author Ian Flemming put it: “Today we are fighting Communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”

The outsourcing of adult responsibility onto a fallible, corruptible bureaucracy is appaling, but less so in the (already serious) political and material implications than in the psychological.

For a guy big on discipline, self-mastery and generally being an adult like me, the disturbing part is how nannying lawmaking reflects a collective unwillingness to grow up and take responsibility, a culture-wide rejection of adulthood, immaturity on a civilizational scale.

The question is not about sugar. If it was, this article would sound blown out of proportion. But the sugar thing is just an instance of a bigger problem. The problem, the real serious problem, is that people will get used to being babysat and having their self control replaced by government control, and never grow up. Which will in turn require yet more babysitting in the future.

That prospect, of course, is eminently attractive to both the chronically irresponsible and the power hungry. I’m happy for them for having such a wonderful symbiosis, but as usual in politics, it’s the high-functioning, self-sufficient adult human that gets screwed.

Unlike the politicians ad-hoccing their way towards a Brave New World by failing to recognize the substantial evils underlying their incidental goods, I’m dealing with a much more important and much harder problem – how to get people to take responsibility, grow up and think for themselves.

I’m not saying reducing sugar consumption is not a worthy goal. I’m saying government is not the proper level (and lever) of action, and coercion (in a modernised guise of “nudging”) is not the way to do it that would be reconcilable with modern statehood. It’s the archetypal image of “incidental good, substantial evil”. The goals are good, but the tools and underlying mentality are terrible.

What about people who are not adults, though? Will nobody think of the children, who cannot responsibly choose for themselves and are being preyed upon, and made fat by greedy soda companies? So goes the government line. By a similar logic, according to experts, food being cheap is a bad thing.

Again, feel free to call me old-fashioned, but am I the only one who thinks childhood obesity should be tackled by better parenting, not government intervention?

Not only are the methods morally unacceptable, the idea that price signals would work on kids is hilarious. Because teenagers are sooo price sensitive. It will only result in fat kids asking parents for more pocket money, as the lawmakers must be well aware. Which means the true purpose of the policy is tax revenue, at the price of rising inequality (as the low-self-control demgcraphic is disproportionately poor, and poor precisely for that reason). Fair enough, but be honest. The actual motivation is taxation and the ego tingle that comes with playing big sister to everyone.

The “Good shepherd”. But the proper function of government is closer to the guy who trims your lawn. If he tries to be your shepherd, you’re justified to fire him and kick his ass. Any attempts to usurp that role are insanely dangerous precedents.

The desire to control others is primary, and the apparently moral or beneficial pretexts are just stratagems. And the pretexts just keep getting funnier.

Are huge amounts of sugar good for you? Nope. But that’s not the point. The point is that the decision is yours, not the government’s.

We had an apparently analogous discussion a few years earlier about smoking. But recycling anti-tobacco arguments to regulate sugar is a false equivalence. The issues might look superficially similar, in that people consume things that are harmful. But the crucial difference is that a big fat sugary smoothie isn’t killing the person at the next table. It’s purely a personal choice.

(Not counting the impact on public health finance we solved earlier.)

Another false equivalence is the claim that sugar is addictive. Glucose is the human body’s primary energy source. Of course we crave it. Evolution made sure of it. Yes, sugar is “addictive”, but not in the way that cocaine or meth are. Saying people are addicted to sugar is like saying we’re “addicted” to water. It’s abusing the word for shock value.

Either it is a true addiction, in which case taxes will have zero impact on consumption (as demand for truly addictive items is inelastic), or taxes will work and then we need to stop calling it “addiction”. Whichever is the case, the social-engineering line of battling addiction with rising costs is self-contradictory.

That people eat too much sugar, because it is now copiously available, and their “firmware” failed to adjust, is a real issue, but the solutions proposed have problems that are worse than the original problem. 

The only good solution to this issue, and most other issues, is enlightened, informed self-control.

It’s easier to get mad at “big food” creating addiction through too much sugar, fat and salt, and pass bad lifestyle choices off as some sort of conspiracy than to control one’s own god fucking damned cravings and order a salad.

Which is completely possible and I don’t see why I should be forced to live in some new age kale-based third reich just because some people are too weak to pick healthy food.

Enjoying the article? Buy me an avocado salad.