Stop Us Before We Eat Again: The Case Against Food Paternalism

They're from the government, and they're here to take that tasty snack out of your hands.

Responding to a question raised on Twitter by Megan McArdle, Matthew Yglesias argues that having the government make our food decisions for us isn’t a bad idea at all:

It seems to me that if DC were to re-legalize smoking in bars, that would dramatically increase the odds of me returning to being a regular smoker and I don’t want to see that happen. Similarly, I lost 70 pounds in 2010 and I’m hoping to keep that weight off. But I also know that I’m someone with a weakness for over-indulging in salty snacks relative to my second-order desires about weight, and would welcome paternalistic measures that made me less likely to chow down on Combos.

My guess is that this kind of desire for self-regulation via government fiat is an important source of support for paternalistic regulation. The irony and tragedy of it is that the demand for this sort of thing probably could, in principle, be met through the private sector. I bet a dozen clever libertarian bloggers could sketch out dozens of different possible schemes for doing this

Yea, and without getting too personal about it, we could start with whatever scheme it is that Matt used to drop 70 pounds in a year (and congratulations on that by the way). Something he was apparently able to accomplish without the paternalistic intervention of the state. Weight loss, or quitting smoking, is something that individuals can do on their own. Unless we’re going to be willing to live in a ridiculously intrusive state, people who want to smoke will smoke, and people who want to eat salty or fatty foods will eat salty or fatty goods. These are choices people make and, by and large, we live in an era where people are largely away of the consequences of those choices. If they want to take the risk, who are you, or I, or Michelle Obama, to tell them otherwise?

Speaking of the First Lady, today’s New York Times reports on her latest anti-obesity initiative:

After wrapping her arms around the retail giant Wal-Mart and trying to cajole food makers into producing nutrition labels that are easier to understand, Michelle Obama, the first lady and a healthy-eating advocate, has her sights set on a new target: the nation’s restaurants.

A team of advisers to Mrs. Obama has been holding private talks over the past year with the National Restaurant Association, a trade group, in a bid to get restaurants to adopt her goals of smaller portions and children’s meals that include healthy offerings like carrots, apple slices and milk instead of French fries and soda, according to White House and industry officials.

The discussions are preliminary, and participants say they are nowhere near an agreement like the one Mrs. Obama announced recently with Wal-Mart to lower prices on fruits and vegetables and to reduce the amount of fat, sugar and salt in its foods. But they reveal how assertively she is working to prod the industry to sign on to her agenda.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Obama will begin a three-day publicity blitz to spotlight “Let’s Move!,” her campaign to reduce childhood obesity, which was announced one year ago this week.

She will introduce a public service announhttps://www.outsidethebeltway.com/wp-admin/post-new.phpcement, appear on the “Today” show and deliver a speech in Atlanta promoting gardening and healthy-eating programs.

But as she uses her public platform to persuade children to eat healthier and exercise more, Mrs. Obama and her team are also quietly pressing the levers of industry and government. Over the past year she has become involved in many aspects of the nation’s dietary habits, exerting her influence over nutrition policy.

Her team has worked with beverage makers to design soda cans with calorie counts and is deeply involved in a major remake of the government’s most recognizable tool for delivering its healthy-eating message: the food pyramid.

Now, as I’ve said before, I think that the First Lady’s anti-obesity campaign is perfectly fine  as a public education campaign. When it goes down the road of the President’s wife, accompanied by government officials, pressuring private industry to change business practices to make them “politically acceptable,” or the provision that was in the Affordable Care Act that requires chain restaurants to put calorie counts on their menus (a law that has had no measurable impact on eating habits in New York City where it’s been the law for two years now), then we are down the road to the Nanny State. Educate people all you want, but once you start trying to control what they eat, then the government has gone down a road that it has no business traveling down.

Finally, all of this paternalism ignores one simple point which James Joyner touched on last month:

Most of us already know that we’re eating too much of the wrong kinds of food, drinking too much beer and whisky, and getting too little exercise. The problem isn’t lack of knowledge but lack of will. Pizza, French fries, pale ales, and single malts are delicious. Watching television, surfing the Web, and playing video games is relaxing. Running, lifting weights, and swimming laps is hard.

In other words, it’s personal choices that cause us to be out of shape, not the evil plans of corporations, and it’s personal choice that would keep us healthy, not the dictates of Nanny State.

FILED UNDER: Food, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. To draw parallels between smoking and eating is foolish. It’s easy: if I eat too many Big Macs, I’m not affecting anyone else in my general vicinity. If I’m smoking an entire pack of fags, everyone around me also has to deal with the smoke.

    I wasn’t fond of the laws in my state banning even so much as smoking sections in restaurants – it removed choice, and prevents my own father from smoking in his own business – but at least I could see where they come from. Doing the same thing with food is just wrong.

  2. DC Loser says:

    if I eat too many Big Macs, I’m not affecting anyone else in my general vicinity.

    Not so fast. But your heart attack, stroke, diabetes, or whatever ailments that will develop from your eating habits will affect everyone around you in the form of higher insurance premiums to cover all your emergency room visits, expensive prescription medicines, etc. Somebody is going to pay for all this. You will not affect anyone around you if you decide to pay your own medical bills down the road and not get insurance.

  3. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***If I’m smoking an entire pack of fags, everyone around me also has to deal with the smoke.***No they don’t……

  4. John P says:

    I posted on this several times and have still not had an answer – who is picking up the medical bills from people that either don’t care or aren’t well informed regarding their eating habits?

    Every time a program is brought up to be cut like foreign aid or planned parenthood or CHIPs people say “what does it matter, it’s only half of 1% of the budget.”

    The 600 pound West Virginian in the room is Medicaid/Medicare and a massive percentage of what is spent by our government goes directly to those people who don’t want anyone weighing in on their personal choices.

    What you don’t know IS killing you…and most of you over 40 are hanging on with subsidized meds…from our subsidized food…

    So your government is using your dollars to invest in things making you fat and sick, then they are selling that back to you in the form of chips, bread, pasta, corn, corn syrup, and various other products. Using the government’s food pyramid you knock back your building block of a healthy diet with your “whole grains”. Then, after your body gets tired of cranking out insulin to deal with that base it starts to shut down. So you head to the doctor for a battery of tests (paid for mostly by your insurance and for many Americans our Medicaid) and he prescribes a host of medication to control your chronically inflamed body/diabetes (again, paid for in large part by the government).

    But, heck, outside of dumping our money into overproduction of crops, a Medicaid/Medicare system that is bankrupting our country, and not really informing us well on the effects of the food we’re putting into our bodies feel free to leave us alone…

  5. Dan says:

    How do you feel about nutritional labeling on foods, as mandated by Nutritional Labeling and Education act of 1990?

  6. john personna says:

    Conservatives have an immune response whenever anyone talks about healthy eating, because they believe healthy eating may lead to an expanded state. Sad, really.

  7. An Interested Party says:

    “In other words, it’s personal choices that cause us to be out of shape, not the evil plans of corporations…”

    Oh yes, as if the fact that farm subsidies make corn extremely cheap to produce which leads to lots of production of high fructose corn syrup which is then dumped into all kinds of food doesn’t have any effect on this equation…

    “No they don’t……”

    Really? Perhaps they can turn on their magical force fields to keep the smoke from invading their lungs…

  8. john personna says:

    (As I understand it, there is no actual move to expand federal power here. It is all a tempest in a teapot because “it might have been.”)

  9. Oh yes, as if the fact that farm subsidies make corn extremely cheap to produce which leads to lots of production of high fructose corn syrup which is then dumped into all kinds of food doesn’t have any effect on this equation…

    Which is just another example of the unintended consequences of government policy

  10. Conservatives have an immune response whenever anyone talks about healthy eating, because they believe healthy eating may lead to an expanded state.

    I am not against eating healthy.

    I am against the government telling me what to do because they think they know better than me

  11. Trumwill says:

    Not so fast. But your heart attack, stroke, diabetes, or whatever ailments that will develop from your eating habits will affect everyone around you in the form of higher insurance premiums to cover all your emergency room visits, expensive prescription medicines, etc. Somebody is going to pay for all this. You will not affect anyone around you if you decide to pay your own medical bills down the road and not get insurance.

    This type of logic, while it makes sense in its own way, always makes me deeply uncomfortable. There is no end to what government intrusions can be justified so long as it involves your health.

    “Your sexual promiscuity is spreading STDs. That results in the government having to spend more money on treatments in the form of Medicaid (and high insurance premiums for everybody). I’m sorry, we’re going to have to step in here…”

  12. Jay Tea says:

    Trumwill, you’re right on the verge of my favorite example: why not put welfare recipients on mandatory birth control? They’re already on our dime, why the hell should they be allowed to pile on more costs?

    Which is going to cost the taxpayers more money — me, if I have an extra couple of donuts, or a welfare mother having another kid on our dime?

    J.

  13. An Interested Party says:

    “Which is just another example of the unintended consequences of government policy”

    Indeed, government policy encouraged by corporations that continue to funnel gobs of cash to politicians so that they will continue these wasteful policies which benefit very few but hurt very many…we are in complete agreement that many government policies are harmful, but, judging from your past statements, you don’t seem to realize what drives many of these policies…

  14. Raoul says:

    Truth be told, there are numerous regulations concerning food and water including flouride and vitamins. I do not see anyone protesting those, any rule that promotes health should be look in a 50 year window- would a particular rule be rescinded then? It would appear that some people here would probably have been against flouride in the water but once the issue was settled they were happy to lead their contended lives- or to put it another way- should we remove flouride from water and Vitamin D from milk? Yes or No and why?

  15. john personna says:

    I am not against eating healthy.

    I am against the government telling me what to do because they think they know better than me

    What I’m say is conservatives in general, and you in this piece, seem to use “eating healthy” as a jumping off point to rail about “government telling” that isn’t there.

    It is the monster under the bed for you folk.

  16. Richard says:

    Doug, actually, the government does know better than you *sometimes* what’s good for you.

    The problem is that individuals are not rational when deciding things for themselves. They are a whole heck of a lot more rational when weight dispassionately on someone else’s life. Note how often women give the perfect relationship advice to their female friends but fail to follow up on that themselves. An individual can be good at managing other people’s investments (you’re more conservative when managing other people’s money) but suck at their own (via the belief in their innate ability to pick rapid growth duds, ponzi schemes, and exotic instruments).

    On the topic of food, individuals generally know vaguely that something is bad for them but not the exact specifics. Humans naturally have a hard time projecting out the consequences of an activity into the future. Someone might now that smoking causes lung cancer, but not know that lung cancer is actually sooo horrible until they are stuck with it later in life. At that point, they are usually repentant and wish that someone had stopped them.

    In general though, it’s a lose-lose situation for the government (and parents everywhere). Do too much and people become dependent on you or complain about overintrusiveness. Do too little and when disaster strikes (Great Depression, diabetes, cancer), people accuse you of doing too little in the past.

    I have this random theory that individuals who are lucky and grow up having succeeded in business, health, etc. overattribute their success to their innate ability. These people become conservative and imagine that if they did it, everyone else could do it as well. Oh, and we’ve seen with bankers that when the going gets tough, the tough run to the government for bailouts. Seriously, these “conservatives” are not above relying on or pushing for government aid when it goes to helping them.

  17. mantis says:

    or the provision that was in the Affordable Care Act that requires chain restaurants to put calorie counts on their menus (a law that has had no measurable impact on eating habits in New York City where it’s been the law for two years now), then we are down the road to the Nanny State. Educate people all you want, but once you start trying to control what they eat, then the government has gone down a road that it has no business traveling down.

    Providing consumers with information is controlling what they eat? No, it’s not.

    When the Chicago City Council banned foie gras, that was controlling what people could eat. It was short lived, reversed just two years later after a great deal of popular opposition, largely to their overreach (most people never eat foie gras), and much ridicule by Mayor Daley. Requiring nutritional information be presented to consumers does not make their choices for them.