“The greatest tyranny has the smallest beginnings. From precedents overlooked, from remonstrances despised, from grievances treated with ridicule, from powerless men oppressed with impunity and overbrearing men tolerated with complacence, springs the tyrannical usage which generations of wise and good men may hereafter perceive and lament and resist in vain.”
– London Times editorial (1846)
Massachusetts plans on following the lead of New York City health officials, who three years after banning smoking, last month banned trans fats in all restaurants. Cooks throughout the state’s thousands of food service establishments will not be able to use any ingredients containing what it calls a “toxic” substance. Say goodbye to your favorite French fry or Dunkin’ Donut.
Trans fats are bad for you. How could anyone be opposed to such an ordinance? Is it really such a big deal if one ordinance gets passed that’s well motivated and is enacted to save lives?
Simply yes – this is the death of liberty by a thousand cuts (in supposedly the cradle of liberty!!!) and there are darn good reasons to be sickened by this bout of government paternalism. Why should you care? Paternalism puts us all on a slippery slope to a bad place. First government slaps mandatory labels on food on the grounds that it really does not infringe upon individual sovereignty. After all, you’re still free to eat trans fats. Who can be against that? This is followed by real regulation – bans on using the substance; enormous taxes and bans on entry. Recall what happened with smoking. But hey, these things are dangerous!
What exactly does dangerous mean? I think I’m a dangerous driver because my mind is always in a million different places – yet I’ve only had one small fender bender in my life. Dangerous is a meaningless term – it is great for demagogue politicians and bureaucrats but it is useless in economics and happens to take the joy out of life.
Most things in life are dangerous. Football is dangerous. Skateboards are dangerous. Swimming pools are very dangerous. Even Flintstone vitamins can be dangerous. How can you ban something as being “dangerous” when the meaning is so opaque? Who decides? And how does government know the real risk of something that you for some reason do not?
However, the most important reason the government should not be banning dangerous items is because government is not a person and it certainly doesn’t love me or care about me in any way. The experts that governments seek the advice of similarly do not love me or care about me or know my likes and dislikes. How do these government officials and experts know how trans fats affect me or how they give me pleasure or cause me pain? They have no idea what my tolerance for risk is.
Not afraid yet? Health officials and the experts they confer with not only have limited information on the wants, tolerances and conditions of millions of individual Massachusetts citizens, but they don’t only want to do good. Their full set of motivations are far more complex. The health officials respond to political pressure. But what’s more concerning is this. Why trans fats? Why now? (Surely beer is much more toxic to me than trans fats are). What else is going on? Can it be that someone has an interest in trans fats being banned? What products will your French fries be made with or your favorite donuts in the absence of trans fats? (It used to be that lard was used to make tasty French fries). Do the makers of these substitute products have a stake in quietly lobbying the city of New York to enrich them in the name of public health? And this is the real world that we all live in. Once you are in it, why would you assume that the experts or the politicians or the bureaucrats have the incentive to do what is right?
This proposal is an outrage. People can make their own choices about what they eat. If trans fats are so toxic and dangerous, I’d expect restaurants to eliminate them on their own and start advertising that they are trans fat free. I doubt 50 years ago Ray Kroc imagined McDonalds would be selling salads. Government should stay out of our kitchens, out of our bedrooms, off of our football fields and everywhere else that we make choices that are best left to ourselves and out of the hands of power where those decisions can be influenced by special interests. That so many people think this is a good idea is scary. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
HT to Russ Roberts.