|Hooray for libertarian sentiment, I guess?
||[Mar. 21st, 2007|02:32 pm]
one dour badger
Associated Press feeds us an opinion piece (not even thinly veiled) regarding the recent trend in banning things; trans fats, cellphones while driving, and headphones in crosswalks are given as examples. In the closing paragraph, a capital-L Libertarian is not-quite-quoted as seeing the validity of a ban one-handed driving, which is hazardous to others, but thoroughly disapproving of a ban on unhealthy foods, as it should be his decision whether he wants to trade donuts for years.
Here is the #1 reason I can't bear to associate myself with the Libertarians, despite holding strongly libertarian views myself: there is an omnipresent underlying assumption that it is the sole responsibility of individuals to educate themselves. This is contrary to human nature. We learn from the culture that surrounds us, even if we are never formally taught anything. Many of us learn that self-education is a valuable and worthwhile pursuit, but it must be strongly emphasized that this, too, is a learned behavior!
It is simply wrong to suggest that anyone who doesn't know that fried chicken can clog their arteries is getting what they deserve for being ignorant. I understand well the frustration that can come from trying to educate (or even work around) the willfully ignorant: those who refuse to be educated at all, or to let go of false ideas that block useful ones from being absorbed. Taking out this frustration on the merely uneducated is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. To further invest this paragraph in proverbs, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." But if you don't do the leading, guys, you're negligent on your end.
I cannot stress enough that I believe any law which attempts to protect one from one's own behavior is absolutely wrong. However, this must not be generalized beyond a certain point. People place their trust in food providers; in the name of cheap manufacture and pseudo-addictive products, that trust is often violated, and this is not exclusively the consumer's fault. The point of structured society, after all, is so that we don't all have to watch our asses from every angle 24/7. Trust should be possible.
The most reasonable avenue to reinforcing the validity of that trust is hard to nail down to a single rule of thumb. Truly toxic substances, the sort which produce consistent and significant damage across all cases, might well be worth banning, but of course the threshold of what's deemed significant is a subjective one. I think a far more effective method is already in place and widely used: the nutrition information on packaged foods is a good starting point even if it's not quite comprehensive, and lately it's often got a list of allergenic ingredients.
If the FDA were to compile a list of ingredients known to have adverse health effects, this could just be added to the info panel. (Some method of differentiating RDAs for "you need this much" against RDAs for "this is too much" would be very handy as well, especially for helping America's salt problem.) Television PSAs encouraging people to check the labels would go a long way, too.
Finally, restaurants and other prepared food which can't be labeled should be required to specially label menu items which are prepared with FDA-flagged allergenic or unhealthy ingredients, including flags for excessive content (e.g., more than 40% RDA) of sodium, fat, and similar. This need not be more than an asterisk leading to a "See full nutritional information for health concerns" footnote, with the actual chart being available on request.
The immediate, obvious result of these actions in the market will be the deliberate hawking of foods with no warnings. Restaurant items without the asterisk will doubtless have an even bigger "Healthy!" tag. We're already seeing a similar reaction to a general public trend toward preferring healthier foods, e.g. Sprite making a big deal about reducing their ingredients list to five items; of course, this list still includes high fructose corn syrup (that thing I said about violating trust?), which is exactly the sort of thing mandatory flags from the FDA would remedy without having to resort to banning.
Jumping back to the full scope of the original article, here's my take on certain categories of ban laws:
Banning an action which is potentially harmful to only the perpetrator (e.g.: crossing the street with headphones on, biking without a helmet)
These laws are absolutely wrong. At most, they should be handled with public service announcements.
Banning an action by one party which may be harmful to a voluntarily-involved second party (e.g.: preparation of food with unhealthy ingredients, selling cigarettes)
These are indeed voluntary actions on the part of the potentially harmed party, participated in for pleasure or convenience. A ban is intrusive and wrong, but clear warnings on the part of the provider are a reasonable requirement.
Banning an action taken by one party which may be harmful to passers-by (e.g.: driving while on the phone, shooting your gun upwards for fun)
This is the one category of bans I'm generally in favor of.
Banning a non-hazardous public nuisance (e.g.: public smoking, noise)
These are a special case. I understand and don't deny these sorts of ordinances, but they should be implemented on the smallest possible scale, never globally. I am a non-smoker and nearly retch whenever I pass through a cloud of burnt tobacco when walking between businesses; this is a place I have to be every day, and if enough of the local community agrees with me, I'd love to see a public smoking ban on Redwood Drive. I would vote against a ban that extended to the residential areas of Garberville, or which additionally banned smoking in a private establishment which specifically posted a notice that smoking was allowed inside (provided that such an establishment doesn't reek when I walk by, if it's in an area where public smoking is otherwise disallowed). The key to this category is that "nuisance" is an incredibly subjective term, and any ordinance of this sort should be strictly limited to clearly defined areas where those who want the ban are a firm majority. In any but the smallest towns, even a city ordinance is probably too sweeping; these should be done at the neighborhood and business district level.