Sunday, January 07, 2007

They can have my trans fats when they pry them from my cold, dead arteries

Will Clower argues in this Post-Gazette op-ed that Pittsburgh should join New York City and Chicago in banning trans fats. He argues that the costs incurred as a result of diseases associated with trans fats trumps any libertarian concerns:

The problem in ridding foods of heart-damaging oils is not the price, or the flavor or the bother of changing to healthier ingredients. The real problem is more fundamental. It comes from that kernel, lodged deep within each of our foot-stomping, you're-not-the-boss-of-me Libertarian hearts, that screams that no one can tell us what to do.

The same impulse made people rebel against the mandatory seat-belt law that has saved tens of thousands of lives, the motorcycle helmet law (since repealed in Pennsylvania) and the institution of smoke-free zones.

I'm all for cutting the cost of health care. I've had several vigorous debates at this site over how to do so. (Here is one example.) But the problem with prohibiting an individual from engaging in an activity or consuming a substance based on the social costs is that there really is no end to what government can decide should be proscribed. Burger King, for example, might boast flame-broiled burgers, but if you order one with bacon and cheese on it, you're not doing your heart any favors. So why should we allow bacon cheeseburgers?

Yes, slippery slope arguments have their limits. It's a ludicrious and, I'll admit, a cliched example. But I never thought I'd see the day when the government decided that because some Americans are unable to make healthy choices (and I'm devoured my share of trans fats myself, no doubt) that restaurants would be told what kind of cooking oils they can and cannot use.

I'll admit to being ambivalent about the smoking ban. Other people are affected by one person's decision to light up in public. But I'm hurting no one but myself if I decide to order a bucket of extra crispy and wash it down with some buttermilk biscuits. (Oh, wait. KFC has voluntarily stopped using trans fats. Maybe we don't need that ban after all.)

And yes, I happen to think people should be able to ride motorcycles without helmets, so long as they are adults, and I do believe people should be able to drive their cars without seat belts, even though I won't put my car into gear without strapping myself in. (Again, that's a choice I should be able to make for myself, not, for example, for my 15-month-old daughter, who does indeed deserve the protection of the state were my parental concern insufficient.)

In short, the government has no obligation, nor should it have any power, to protect me from myself.

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Blogger EdHeath said...

The thing about government paternalism, and libertarian arguments, is that these things really should be examined on a case by case basis. For example, the blow up with trans fats started with labeled foods in the supermarket. Trans fats weren’t on the label (except as part of total fats), so it looked like some food products were healthier than they really were because they had a low amount of saturated fat. Many, maybe most Americans know about that now, and trans fats now are on the nutrition label, so people have the information to make informed choices. But consumers do not have that information for foods in restaurants. You can kind of guess that foods fried in animal fat or with large amounts of red meat probably have their shard of saturated fats. But finding the trans fats in restaurants would be a lot trickier. Even if restaurants provided trans fat information on menus, you might find that no food would be trans fat free. From that point of view it is easier to ban the trans fat than try to find a way to provide a reasonable amount of useful information and alternatives for consumers. The government sets some safety standards for food production, and I think that is a good thing. I don’t want to have to add finding disease free food to the list of things I need to inform myself about. The trans fat business (labels on store bought food, banned in restaurants) is an extension of that.

11:57 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Well, if you put trans fats in the same category as, say, the ecoli bacteria, than a ban seems reasonable. But I don't think that is a valid comparison. I think there is vast difference between requiring restaurants to meet standards of cleanliness and food preparation, and banning them from offering foods that, in the long run, are unhealthy.

People have to eat. That is why it is perfectly reasonable--and quite advisable--to require that manufacturers list ingredients and include nutrition information on the food we purchase at grocery stores. But people don't have to eat in restaurants. A restaurant is a public accomodation but it does not provide a public service. Some restaurants market themselves as healthy places to eat, but many don't, and I don't think that expectations of receiving healthy food in restaurants are so high on the part of the public that they need to be enforced by government.

There is another issue here that goes beyond whether I should have the right to eat unhealthy food, or whether someone should have the right to sell it to me. There comes a point where we have to acknowledge that we cannot live risk-free lives, and that there are limits to what government can and should do not only to protect as from harm. Someone once said that if we wanted to live risk-free lives, we'd have to ban left turns. It's something to think about.

8:47 PM

Blogger Bram Reichbaum said...

You see, I think I'd oppose a *federal* ban on trans-fats. But when it comes to a county, or even a state, its like, let a thousand flowers bloom! Let the best ideas win! Why *shouldn't* a smallish community have the right to ban a wholly unnatural product that was designed to addict?

10:28 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I guess there are some things that I think should be beyond the purview of government at any level.

8:18 PM

Blogger Thomas Leturgey said...

I think that governments are certainly getting out of hand here. I haven't heard...which political party was responsibility for banning everything fun in New York City? My bet: elite liberal Democrats, hence the reason why we didn't hear who was in charge of the movement.

Trans fats? It's not poison in rational amounts...why should anyone tell me what I can and can't eat?

Those on motorcycles without helmets: thinning the heard.

What's next...smoking in your own house? You can't make your own chicken wings in the deep fryer?

8:28 PM


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