There is no doubt that Bermuda is as free a country as can be found anywhere, but we should be aware that there are Bermudian busybodies on our case, and if successful, they will make us a little less free. All with the noble objective of telling us how to live our lives in a way that meets with the approval of government bureaucrats.
I say that in the context of the proposed 2018 Sugar Tax, the details of which are contained in a “Sugar Tax Consultation Document”, which was issued in January by the Ministry of Health.
The Government is seeking to raise customs duties to a maximum of 150 per cent on a selection of food and beverages such as candy and soft drinks, deemed by the ministry as “non-nutritive, luxury items” to discourage consumption.
The objective is “to curb unwanted consumption of these foods which contribute no nutritional value to our daily diets”. In particular, the Government is concerned about Bermudians being overweight, which is linked to the medical problem of diabetes.
The problem of diabetes is that 75 per cent of Bermuda’s population is obese — the incidence is one of the highest in the world — and 50 per cent of Bermudians drink at least one sugary drink a day, 34 per cent two and 16 per cent have three or more. The cost of medical care over the next ten years is estimated to be $26 million.
There is no doubt that there is a significant health problem, and that it would be best if Bermudians consume less sugar, but it is not clear what business it is of the Government to monitor and regulate anyone’s consumption of sugar. In addition, the Government will increase the cost of living of those who do not have a sugar-consumption problem.
Everyone knows that sugar is bad for you, but then so is going to bed late, riding a motorcycle, water skiing, wearing shoes that are too tight, and a host of other “risky crimes”. Is it the intention of the Ministry of Health to make sure that all of us are in bed by 10pm?
Free people can make their own minds about what they do without an intrusive government telling us that we should not be naughty.
If freedom is important, and most Bermudians think it is, adults should be free to drink as much soft drinks or beer or coffee or gin or ginger beer, or eat as much chocolate as they like without some spoilsport bureaucrat telling us that we are not competent to run our own lives and that we are dumb bunnies whose pleasures should be taxed at a penal rate.
I suppose we should be thankful that the Government is not proposing to ban sugar altogether in the way it banned cannabis, or in the way the United States Government back in 1920s banned alcohol in a noble experiment called prohibition.
Those with a history background will recall that policy resulted in the creation of gangsters such as Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly — and also led to many gangster-related murders.
Less well known is that Adolf Hitler — a teetotaller who never smoked and had many health fetishes — was a strong advocate of the nanny state that had a penchant to tell ordinary people how to run their lives on the grounds that they were too incompetent to be given independence of action as to what they ate.
From small acorns grow big trees. We all know what happened with Hitler and his Nazi Party. Once small freedoms were taken away by big government, it was only a matter of time before big freedoms were also taken away on the selfsame grounds that ordinary people were too stupid to be given any discretion over minor issues affecting their lives.
No need to recall the evils of Hitler and the Nazis, but it is worth recalling that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
It is also worth recalling that the US Supreme Court Judge, Louis Brandeis, stated in the 1927 case Whitney v California that “the greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding”.
Describes the health ministry to a tee.
Free Bermudians manage their own affairs, including their diets, and that there are dangers when a government loses faith in a free people to do that. One does not encourage personal responsibility by taking responsibility away from Bermudians. All that happens is that government becomes more powerful and individuals become less free. We cannot say “mind your own business” because everything is now the business of government. Voters become the equivalent of sheep or cattle.
We run the risk of being treated like Germans in the 1930s, and propertyless Bermudians in the 1950s who did not have the right to vote.
The Government, in form of the diet-police, should butt out of micromanaging the lives of people and try to get its own house in order. There are much more important issues than bullying people about their diets. The ultimate result of shielding people from the effects of foolish decisions is to populate Bermuda with fools.
Taxes should be imposed to pay for essential services such as police and education, not for the social-engineering fantasies of the health ministry staff. The most important role of government is to leave people alone and let them live their own lives. Government works best when it focuses on doing a few things well.
The 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill had it right when he stated that “the only purpose for which power may be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant”.
The issue is not whether those who consume more sugar than is good for them should be helped or taxed into government-approved behaviour. It is how can they be brought into a situation whereby they can help themselves.
I am an adult, not a child. And so are the other approximately 45,000 adult residents of Bermuda.
People are not just mouths — they also have brains. We do not need food cops bossing us around.
• Robert Stewart is the author of two books on the Bermuda economy