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.


  • Yan Masarsky

    it’s interesting how you’re protesting sugar taxation and subtle behavioural modification as being undemocratic and humiliating for the libertarian spirit, but you don’t even mention the equally undemocratic and outright barbaric persecution of drug users. Aren’t they, too, “individual people [who] fail to act on the information, [hence] that is their problem – and their choice”?

    if we are to question why the fuck governments dare to dictate what we can and cannot consume, wouldn’t it be more logical to first address the glaring problem of people being imprisoned or even executed on the grounds of ‘health care’? Or did I miss something?

    no offence, but it looks a bit like “hey folks, never mind the rotting corpse we have in our living room, what really vexes me is how the wallpaper clashes with the drapes”

    • Zbyněk Dráb

      Interesting analogy, although there are important differences. Couple of reasons I focus on sugar rather than drugs:

      1. Drugs, especially some hard ones, are far more addictive, far worse for health, and generate vastly bigger negative externalities for society as a whole. Nobody ever stole anyone’s stereo, shanked anybody in a back alley, beat up their spouse and became a cardboad-box-dwelling dead man walking because of cinnamon rolls.

      2. Sugar is a new topic. The drug debate has been raging on for decades, and I’d say we have a pretty good balance between freedom of choice and damage mitigation going. That balance is different for heroin, weed, alcohol, sugar and tea.

      3. Because it’s a new topic, it’s a meaningful battlefield where to stop a precedent from forming. Cool, this time it’s sugar and you can make the argument people *do* need to eat less of it. I will make that argument till the end of time if necessary. But I have enough faith in human nature, and enough experience with overeager government interference, to think that the way to do that is to educate and enlighten, not manipulate or command. If that fails, fat people are still a lesser evil than handing bureaucrats the power to write everybody’s lunch menu. I wouldn’t be surprised if people who were born and raised in countries that were always (reasonably) free and democratic saw this differently, but then I’d call them sleepwalking into a Brave New World future of eternal childhood. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them wanted that, but then I’d call them fucked.

      4. It’s sugar now. Much as I am suspicious of slippery slope arguments, if this goes through, it will start a fad of behavioral modification in government. It won’t stop there. Hence my objections to the principle, which subtly redraws the democratic social contract, far more than the obvious necessity to reduce sugar consumption. I may share their goals, but not their methods.

      EDIT: 5. Nutritional science just isn’t good enough – it’s a mess of contradictory claims and 180 degree turns in official recommendations. Of course, everyone now widely agrees that the science wasn’t good enough 30 years ago and ended up giving counterproductive recommendations, and we’re now finally starting to get it right. Trouble is, people thought that 30 years ago, too. Now imagine a government actually acting on flawed science. So whatever we do, first step is to actually figure this stuff out. Second step: widely disseminate this information. (PE classes in schools need to have a theoretical bit about nutrition and general health). Sure, it’s clear cut in the case of sugar. Other cases might not be. Would that restrain politicians from exercising newly acquired powers? I am skeptical.

      • Yan Masarsky

        1. I hoped you would forgo that tired old rhetoric about stereos and shanks, since we were talking about garden-variety drug use, not “drug-related crimes”, extreme cases of addiction and other fear-mongering paraphernalia

        and it’s not even because that rhetoric is mostly irrelevant, since the vast majority of drug users don’t commit any crimes aside from actually acquiring and using an “illegal substance” (and in case of those who do, correlation does not imply causation: it’s far more common for violent criminals to be drug users than for drug users to be violent criminals)

        it’s just that by focusing on extreme examples we lose perspective. Like if in the case of sugar we would focus on some morbidly obese people and their specific problems instead of contemplating the general effect of overconsumption of high-calorie sweet foods in the modern world. And, by the way, it’s highly contestable if dietary problems and the diseases they facilitate are less of a threat to the well-being of society than drug use (I’m not sure what you meant by “negative externalities” there)

        2. I fully understand the novelty factor and I’m certainly not suggesting that you should have written about drug prohibition instead of sugar taxation. However, since prohibitionist practices largely serve as a presupposition for that “dietary control” you’re criticizing, it seemed strange that you didn’t even mention it. A bit like covering the Cold War out of context of WW2

        and, of course, I strongly disagree that we have “a pretty good balance” there, because that “damage mitigation” causes far more damage than what it’s supposed to mitigate. Simply put, “the war on drugs” is a humanitarian catastrophe. And I’m using the term in its literal meaning, not as a “politics-of-hysteria” exaggeration. As it goes, it’s “an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people”. All there, no doubt about it

        3. I’m all for enlightenment and education, no irony. I strongly believe that in the long run enlightenment is the only effective tool of survival at our disposal. It’s a prerequisite for all solutions to global problems that mankind has, and mankind has quite a few of them even as we speak, not to mention a host of brand-new ones in the foreseeable future

        however, as you yourself so eloquently put it, “human brain is a depressingly change-resistant beast”, so enlightenment doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not something you can count on as a short-term solution

        I was born, raised and still live in a country with insanely high amounts of government control. While I share your resentment of manipulative practices, I can’t help but admit that government control is something we just can’t do without. And among the forms of government control available I, for one, would prefer behavioural modification to, say, legitimized coercion. Or to those festive mass murders that used to be all the rage in the time of our (fore)fathers

        not that I’m supporting the supposedly calamitous sugar taxation as such, but I fail to see how it’s equal to the evil-sounding notion of “bureaucrats [writing] everybody’s lunch menu”. For the sake of argument let’s imagine that covert attempt at squeezing an extra penny from the sweet-tooth’s wallet… actually allows for some development of public healthcare. Is that completely out of the question?

        as far as fair taxation goes, shouldn’t the community of addicts bear the brunt of addiction treatment costs? Moderate users of the substance in question would be moderately affected. Take me for example: I’m fairly indifferent to sweets, I don’t drink soda; I don’t really care if that single pack of sugar that I buy per year costs this much or 20% higher. Isn’t there some logic there after all? And why couldn’t we apply it to some other, more challenging areas of harmful substance consumption, while we’re at it?

        4. the democratic contract could and should be redrawn, because it’s by no means some god-given covenant that we should dogmatically adhere to. Just as Popper that you quote there criticises the classical democracy theory and the seemingly obvious justice of proportional representation, we, too, should question, research, deconstruct, reverse-engineer existing government technologies and then “forward-engineer” new ones. How else could we make progress?

  • Newman Q

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

    After I read that, I went back up to re-read the solution you proffered to the public health finance problem and gave it a quick thought.
    I do agreed with almost everything in the article and at the very least “we the people” need to know if any new psychological methods are employed in “nudging” us towards a preferred behavior. However, how exactly are we going to appropriately differentiate between ailments that are caused by self-destructive lifestyles and genetic predisposition.

    • Zbyněk Dráb

      Good question. It’s one of those situations where it is clear that a difference exists, and is obvious in extreme cases, but there’s a massive gray area.

      I’d leave the question of where the threshold of sufficient evidence is to experts, and stick to a general principle that something like this might be a viable way to go.

  • lifegifted

    Government also need to take steps. Information sometimes can’t be reached.
    Here is documentary about this issue (AU & USA):

    Recommend to watch