I was reluctant to use the same Thomas Jefferson quote twice in less than two weeks, but because the governor of Mississippi missed his golden opportunity to mention it, I simply had to post it again:
"The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others."
This is cited in regard to the "Anti-Bloomberg Law" that was just passed in the Magnolia State, in part as a reaction to the movement set afoot by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban the sale of large, sugary drinks. According to the newly signed statute, counties, districts, and towns will have no authority to regulate portion sizes in foods or beverages.
"It simply is not the role of the government to micro-regulate citizens' dietary decisions," Governor Phil Bryant explained. "The responsibility for one's personal health depends on individual choices about a proper diet and appropriate exercise."
While there is an immediate temptation among civil libertarians to simply praise the principles in Bryant's statement, it's worth noting that his words were rather narrow in their scope. He didn't say that it was wrong for the government to have any role in deciding what citizens do to their own bodies, which is the broader philosophical premise upon which any opposition to dietary regulations must be connected if it is to carry intellectual weight. Instead he focused simply on one specific manifestation of that larger issue — i.e., food and beverage regulation — without delving at all into the deeper Jeffersonian logic that motivated his state's new policy.
The reason for this, of course, is that the leaders of Mississippi wouldn't take too kindly to a full application of the Jeffersonianism embodied in the earlier quote. After all, this is the same government that is trying to shut down its state's last remaining abortion clinic, explicitly bans same sex marriage, has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, due in large part due to its active prosecution of the war on drugs, and only ratified the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery last month. These are not the policies of a state that agrees with Jefferson's observation about the state needing to stay out of "acts of the body."
This hypocrisy is hardly limited to Mississippi. Mayor Bloomberg, for all of his faults, has been one of the nation's most outspoken advocates of gay rights, spearheading the successful effort to legalize homosexual marriage in his own state and personally presiding over New York City's first gay wedding. When advancing his cause, Bloomberg has very often used similarly Jeffersonian arguments as Bryant ... but then flouted their implications on matters like drug policy, anti-smoking laws, and of course attempts to regulate fast food.
The sad thing is that these hypocrisies aren't unique to Bryant and Bloomberg; they are, in fact, the rule among most politicians. It is one of the great weaknesses of our current political culture that statesmen from all sides — Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, socialists — too often espouse a panoply of ideas without ever seriously scrutinizing the ideological underpinnings needed to justify them. Like Orwellian sheep, the habit is to bleat certain platitudes with passion and vigor, regardless of whether the ideas become paradoxical at crucial points. It is a habit that has significantly diminished the quality of our public discourse ... and, as citizens from New York City to Mississippi can attest, we all pay a price for it.
I leave you with another Jeffersonian quote:
"The care of every man's soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglect the care of it? Well what if he neglect the care of his health or his estate, which would more nearly relate to the state. Will the magistrate make a law that he not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills."