Tuesday 24 July 2012

On the importance of defending small liberties

Via Churchmouse Campanologist (whose blog you should follow), Reason has a list of quotes from people fawning over Mike Bloomberg's ban on 'super-size' sodas. The perennially egregious Jamie "none of that low fat malarkey" Oliver makes an inevitable appearance:

We hear a lot about how we shouldn’t be ‘nannying’ people with laws about how they live their lives, but with such a massive problem as the obesity epidemic to deal with, we are way past the point where can trust people to make better choices.

But I was particularly struck by this quote from Prof. Lawrence Weisberg:

"The trivial issues of personal freedom in this case pale before the public health and welfare exigency."

This is a common retort. Bloomberg's ban, we are told, is such a small infringement on liberty that it barely counts as an infringement at all. It only affects enormous bucket-sized guzzlers of fizzy garbage. Anyone who wishes to gorge themselves on pop can buy two smaller cups if they must. That being the case, those who complain must be hysterical libertarians and any protest against the law is self-evidently "ridiculous".

And so Michael Tomasky says...

This talk of “freedom” is absurd. No one’s freedom is being taken away. When the rule goes into effect, probably by September, assuming the city’s board of health votes it through (it's appointed by the mayor), New Yorkers will still be able to buy these beverages. And those who really feel that they will perish unless they have 32 ounces of Mountain Dew Code Red can simply buy two. Nothing is being banned, and no one’s being arrested.

The same argument was made in blunter terms by Drew Magary...

Democracy is not OH MY GOD THESE LAWS WILL MAKE US PUSSIES! Democracy is people working together to sort out just what the rules of society should be. Obviously, this process is labored and often hilariously corrupt, but that's what living in a "free country" is supposed to mean. It doesn't mean that you get to grab a gun and storm City Hall just because you think a soda ban is some kind of sign of the End Times. It's fucking soda. Don't be such a pussy that you can't live without a 42 oz. cup of the shit. If you're the type to flip out just because you can't have that, then who's the real pussy?

As a point of fact, it is untrue to say that Bloomberg has only banned obscenely large sodas which no right-minded person would want to drink. The ban applies to cups containing more than 16 American fluid ounces. 16 fluid ounces is only 480 ml, significantly less than a pint. Many's the time I have bought a pint of Coke in a pub and many's the time I have bought a still larger container in a cinema. I don't think I am alone in this, nor does it make me a glutton.

As for the magnitude of the liberty being infringed, no one is claiming that a ban on large sodas represents the "End Times" and no one thinks anyone is going to "perish" if they can't have an extra-large Mountain Dew. But what are defenders of liberty to do if not defend small liberties? In a liberal democracy, defending small liberties is the only thing civil libertarians should have to do.

How many ageing revolutionaries get misty eyed when they think back to the culture wars of the 1970s, such as the Oz trial or the Gay News blasphemy lawsuit? Where were the 'liberal' pundits scoffing at the notion that producing juvenile pornography was too small a liberty to protect in those days? At whom were the left-wing taunts aimed at when the culture warriors were sticking it to the man by defending some obscure publication? Not at their fellow 'liberals', who could be relied upon to use every legal recourse to protect freedoms that the man on the Clapham omnibus thought "trivial" and unworthy of protection.

What is the Twitter joke trial if not a defence of small freedoms? It is universally agreed that the joke was unfunny, so where are the sneering commentators telling Stephen Fry to "shut the fuck up" and stop being a "pussy"? Where are the people saying "you can still make jokes about blowing up airports in private. Nobody's liberty's being taken away. Get over it"?

Where are the people who will fight to the death to defend the right of Ken Russell and Lars von Trier to release their tedious and puerile films when the multi-billionaire Bloomberg ("the man" by any description) decides on a whim to ban landlords from serving Pepsi in a pint glass? Where are these champions of free expression when the state decides to obliterate the tobacco industry's intellectual property or ban the drinks industry from advertising?

The truth is that we can get along just fine without 32 oz. servings of Sprite, just as we can get along fine without the director's cut of The Devils, smutty Rupert the Bear parodies and lame jokes about terrorism. The reason we protest when the state bans these things is not because we revere them in their own right, but because we hold freedom to have a value in and of itself.

It is inevitable that when the authorities infringe on liberty, they will start by targeting products and activities which have little public support. Free speech is undermined by focusing on extreme pornography and 'hate speech'. Civil liberties are undermined by focusing on terrorism and paedophiles. And the freedom to eat and drink what you want—arguably the most fundamental right of the lot—is undermined by focusing on 32 oz. sodas and wobbly-bottomed gourmands.

In each and every case, the enemy of liberty points to some nebulous definition of the 'public interest' to support his case (public morality, public safety, public health etc.), while the defender of liberty recognises that there is an important issue of principle at stake that goes far beyond the unpopular and perhaps unsavoury test case. We understand that the specific instance may seem "trivial" but the wider principle is not.

It therefore falls to the liberal to defend things which may be unpleasant, unpopular or of interest only to a small minority. It is his job to defend "trivial issues of personal freedom", not least because if he does so, he will never have to worry about bigger issues of personal freedom.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Christopher, for the mention -- much appreciated!

All the same arguments in this proposed soda ban were aired in the 1980s with the non-smoking flights of under two hours. Things like: 'That's all we're asking for', 'It's not such a big deal', 'You won't die going without a ciggie for two hours', 'If you can't be deprived of your cigarettes for two hours, you have a problem'.

Now look where we are. It didn't take long to go from the two-hour flights to all flights being made non-smoking by the end of the 1990s. There might have been one or two holdouts until 2001.

I've really enjoyed reading your blog over the past several years and look forward to more of your insights.

Best wishes

Curmudgeon said...

I recall someone once saying that the defender of liberty spends most of his time standing up for assholes. But that's really the point. Freedom is about accepting and tolerating things you don't like, and defending people's right to make choices you disapprove of. If nobody ever said or did anything you didn't like, there wouldn't be much point.

SadButMadLad said...

Not forgetting that there isn't any obesity epidemic. Fake science trotted out to try and prop up their weak arguments.

Anonymous said...

Indeed SadButMadLad, there is no obesity crisis. People are living longer, have more access to high quality food stuffs throughout life and are hence getting bigger. When I was a child we visited a tudor cottage. The stair treads were far too narrow to be comfortably negotiated by a full grown man in the 1970's. Since when was this a bad thing? When average shoe size increases, as it has been for the last four decades, then you know this has nothing to do with fat. Feet are mostly bone.

Mr A said...

"“The best way to take control over a people and control them utterly is to take a little of their freedom at a time, to erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed.” Guess who?