In this Article, I have created a theory of “micropaternalism” to capture the essence of a unique regulatory dynamic. As I define it, micropaternalism describes when policy makers paternalistically regulate a narrow area, thereby provoking public debate about the underlying controversial issues addressed by the regulation. The loss of autonomy, even in a narrow zone, can instigate a broad-ranging discussion that ultimately influences social norms.
For example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to limit the portion sizes of sugary-drink servings in New York City started a legal fight and a loud social fight about public health and paternalism. The New York City Board of Health enacted a code that covered an extremely narrow piece of the obesity problem, but the public debate took place on a big stage. Discussions about obesity as a public health problem leapt from the policy sphere to the popular sphere. In the long run, the dialogue may have more of an impact on public attitudes and private behavior than the actual regulation—a regulation that may not even prove enforceable. By putting the issue before the public and raising awareness, the debate about overconsumption could reset norms.