Radical Reason

"Nil sine ratione."

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

September 27, 2006

Soft paternalism strikes again. Read about a pending New York law.

In response to this article, one of my friends said, to paraphrase,

"Good. Trans fats are bad for you. This law will save lives, and it will especially save the lives of the poor, who eat fatty foods disproportionately because they are cheaper. Most people are ignorant of the consequences of eating fatty foods, especially poor people. I am not scared of big government if it makes people healthier."

Now, I am no fan of big government. Neither are most Americans.

But with thinking like that paraphrased above, you can see why dictatorships sometimes enjoy popular approval.

I've never bought the "poor people have no choice" argument. I think it's incredibly weak - and insulting to the labor and intelligence of poor people. It's cheaper to go to the grocery store to purchase food. It's just that many people are lazy (or, if you prefer, harried and busy) and want the easy way out (or convenience, if you prefer) provided by fast food. I'll hit on this in a bit.

The problem here is twofold. One component is ignorance of the threats posed by fatty foods. That is addressed by education, not prohibition. And the second issue is one of choice. At base, people CHOOSE to eat fatty foods. Humans make choices in free societies. Perhaps that choice is not prudent - in one's humble opinion - but government prohibition of that choice represents a remarkable confiscating of freedom.

This law throws the baby out with the bathwater. Responsible healthy people who enjoy the occasional greasy bowl of french fries suddenly have been told by their caretaker governments that, "that's not a good idea. And we know better." It seems axiomatic to me that an individual can best pursue his or her interests, and that outside actors, despite potential information advantages, simply do not have the same incentive to pursue another's best interests. Particularly government actors.

Nationwide obesity is a problem. But the solution is not limiting freedom of choice. I think the solution is education and better parenting. The state has unfortunately stepped into too many similar arenas. Parents are no longer responsible for how their children develop. Individuals are no longer responsible for their own behavior. Suddenly - and remarkably ineffectively - the state is.

Back to the article. I also think economics plays a huge role in a law such as this, and the social planners on high seem to have ignored this. Restaurants will spend a fortune if they try to comply with this regulation, and those costs will be passed onto consumers. Suddenly, that poor family is plunking a lot more down to eat at McDonald's - that's money they don't have. Businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and the only people that will benefit to any appreciable degree are those in the upper classes.

This is a typical leftist solution to a problem - pass a law that shifts responsibility for dealing with the problem to "others," then go home feeling good about yourself. It's the reason that many rich people support higher taxes for state-run programs. Rather than go out and fight poverty or some other ill directly - through teaching in low-income schools or giving of one's own time or organizing some charitable effort of committed souls, it's much easier to just shift the responsibility through money to others - it requires no real sacrifice on the rich person's part. He can wash his hands of the problem and sleep better at night, confident that he's "doing something."

You might call it the "White Guilt Relief Fund."

There are many problems in our society, and as members of that civil society, we can debate the nature of the imperative to solve them. But window-dressing such as the law described in this article serves only to whittle further away at the freedom of the individual and unleashes a host of unintended consequences that amount to little more than an effort to appear to do something, rather than to actually do something.

1 Comments:

  • At 11:40 AM, Blogger James McNiece said…

    Bravo, Bert. I especially enjoyed this line:

    "It seems axiomatic to me that an individual can best pursue his or her interests, and that outside actors, despite potential information advantages, simply do not have the same incentive to pursue another's best interests. Particularly government actors."

    Beautiful.

     

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