Just how far should a government go to protect us from ourselves?

In New York City -- which already bans smoking in parks in the name of public health and bars artificial trans fats from food in restaurants -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg now wants to stop sales of large sodas and other sugary drinks, in a bid to battle obesity. But in a country where fries have been equated with freedom, Bloomberg's proposal begs supersized questions about government's role in shaping and restricting individual choices. What's next, a Twinkie purge?

"The idea of the state stepping in and treating adults essentially as children and trying to protect them for their own good, as opposed to the good of others, that's been with us for as long as we've been around, as long as we've had governments," says Glen Whitman, an economist at California State University-Northridge and a critic of paternalistic public policy.

A famous example was Prohibition, which barred the manufacture and sale of alcohol from 1919 to 1933. But Whitman and others see a new wave of intervention afoot, based on behavioral economics rather than religious moralism, and symbolized by moves like Bloomberg's.

If government officials can limit the size of sodas, why couldn't they next decide to restrict portion sizes of food served in restaurants? Why wouldn't a government determined to curb obesity restrict sales of doughnuts or ban bagels with a schmear of cream cheese?

If government is within its right to restrict behavior to protect health, then why wouldn't a mayor or other official ban risky sexual conduct or dangerous sports such as skydiving? What's to stop a mayor from requiring people to wear a certain type of sunscreen or limit the amount of time they can spend on the beach, to protect them from skin cancer?

The more ho-hum reality is that many of the policies restricting individual choice in the name of public health seem almost benign, like enforcement of seat belt laws. But such moves represent a "constant creep until all of a sudden it's extremely obvious," said Mattie Duppler of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative anti-tax lobbying group that spotlights examples of what it considers overreaching "Nanny State" public policy.

But Bloomberg called criticism of his proposal "ridiculous" and said the city is again leading the way in taking on critical health issues. "I look across this country, and people are obese, and everybody wrings their hands, and nobody's willing to do something about it," he said Friday on his weekly radio show.

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