Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Nanny state, or just common sense?

I have long been a proponent of banning synthetic trans fats from restaurant food. As you probably know, California has now taken this step.

I have found myself getting into squabbles with self-styled libertarians on this issue, who protest that is their "right" to decide what they want to eat. There is, however, a simple and obvious reason why the libertarian argument fails. When you eat in a restaurant, you have absolutely no idea what's in the food. You aren't making choices or exercising rights, you're just eating whatever the Board of Health says is legal. I don't hear those same libertarians insisting on their "right" to eat cockroach droppings, salmonella, or the leftovers from the last two people who ordered the same thing and didn't finish it.

Rather than supporting a ban on trans fats in groceries, I support labeling -- which has worked quite well, actually. Most food manufacturers don't want to have to put on their labels that their products contain a deadly ingredient. Public awareness of the dangers of trans fats is high enough, and the cost of eliminating them low enough, that it has turned out to be worthwhile for the big companies to get rid of them. They put a big red heart and "0 grams trans fat" on the front of the package. They're proud of it. And the potato chips -- which you still really shouldn't eat anyway -- taste just fine. Requiring food labeling doesn't take away your liberty, it enhances it. Knowledge is power.

Now, you could argue that restaurant food could be dealt with in the same way -- require labeling, whether it be disclosure on menus or a big sign in front or something. But there are important objections to that. First of all, we don't have the same flexibility and choice in restaurant patronage that we do in the supermarket. There just aren't all that many restaurants, and in our neighborhood there might only be a couple in our price range.

Second, it's not very cost effective. Restaurants would have to update their signage every time they changed their recipes.

Third, it's impossible to enforce. Health inspectors can look at the cleanliness of the kitchen and the temperature of the refrigerators, but they can't possibly test all the oils for cis- or trans-hydrogenation. Banning trans fats, however, can be enforced at the level of the distributor.

So this is a case where a hard regulation actually increases freedom. The logic is that most people -- and the polls say so -- don't want trans fats in their food. But they can't achieve that without the regulation. If there is a minority out there that prefers to eat poison, even though they can't tell the difference in the taste and the price difference is negligible, their "right" -- which has no evident rational basis -- is simply inferior to my right not to be killed.

Just one more reason why libertarianism is a very confused philosophy.

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