Sugary, Salty Liberty

April 21st, 2010 - by Quincy

Some people make foolish decisions. Or, at least, to me they seem foolish. You see, I like being healthy. I enjoy waking up in the morning with a clear head. I value playing sports and being able to climb a flight of stairs without feeling unwell, and I hope to live a long, happy life. But some people don’t seem to value those things as much as I do. I know this because of what these people choose to eat, drink, smoke, snort, chew, inject, or otherwise do to their bodies. I also know this because these people fail to maintain their bodies in good physical condition. These seem like foolish decisions to me because of what I value.

Even aside from my preferences, I believe that destroying one’s body—either through neglect or deliberate choice—is morally wrong. This belief derives from my faith that God created mankind and that He has commanded us to live healthily.

Yesterday, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report identifying excessive salt intake as the cause of serious health problems in the United States. On its website, it summarized the findings and circumstances of the report as follows:

Population-wide reductions in sodium intake could prevent more than 100,000 deaths annually. In 2008, Congress asked the IOM to recommend strategies for reducing sodium intake to levels recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In this report, the IOM concludes that reducing sodium content in food requires new government standards for the acceptable level of sodium.

Some misunderstanding led the Washington Post to report that due to the findings in this study, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) intended to regulate the salt content in food:

The Food and Drug Administration is planning an unprecedented effort to gradually reduce the salt consumed each day by Americans, saying that less sodium in everything from soup to nuts would prevent thousands of deaths from hypertension and heart disease. The initiative, to be launched this year, would eventually lead to the first legal limits on the amount of salt allowed in food products.

In a statement posted on its website the FDA promptly denied plans to implement regulations limiting salt content:  “A story in today’s Washington Post leaves a mistaken impression that the FDA has begun the process of regulating the amount of sodium in foods. The FDA is not currently working on regulations nor has it made a decision to regulate sodium content in foods at this time. ”

Despite the FDA’s denial, at least two concerned legislators declared their support for regulations limiting salt content. Commenting about the nonexistent FDA plans to regulate, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said, “I understand they want to do it in a phased kind of a deal, but I don’t want it to be too long. … This is crying out for change that’s long overdue.” Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) was similarly concerned: “I don’t want this to take 10 years. . . . This is a public health crisis.”

Evidently, although the FDA is not presently planning to follow the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine, some members of Congress think that unhealthy food is a serious crisis calling for a rapid regulatory response.

Salt is not the only regulatory target for these health-conscious legislators, and the federal government isn’t the only one advocating regulation. Some state legislators seem to be thinking along the same lines. Yesterday, a Reuters article noted that

New York City, which has banned smoking and artificial trans-fats in restaurants, has pledged to coordinate a nationwide effort to reduce salt in restaurant and packaged foods by 25 percent over five years. … California state Senator Dean Florez introduced legislation in February to tax sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks and use the proceeds to bankroll programs to fight childhood obesity.

Notwithstanding my personal preference for a healthy lifestyle and notwithstanding my moral beliefs, I oppose government regulations that ban the sale of unhealthy foods because I believe in human equality. Not in the sense that all people are equal in their abilities and accomplishments—that is clearly not true. I believe in human equality in the sense that every person should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. This isn’t just a principle that applies in criminal cases or fights over government “entitlements.” This principle governs the relationship between the citizens and their government. It is an essential principle of liberty.

The consequence of a belief in human equality is that no person has the right to dictate to another the lifestyle she must live or the values she must adopt. As long as a person is not violating the rights of someone else, she must be permitted to make her own choices—even if the consequences are bad. (The obvious caveat here is for relationships such as parent/child relationships and guardian/mentally incompetent relationships.)

Regulations banning unhealthy food change this relationship. They assume that one person has the right to impose his values on someone else. Of course they are couched in language brimming with benevolent intentions, but in essence they reject the principle that “all men are created equal.” Consider the interaction on a basic level. Suppose that Nate makes crackers and Dave wants to buy some. But Joe knows that Nate’s crackers are unhealthy. Dave will not heed Joe’s advice to avoid Nate’s crackers, so Joe says to himself, “For Dave’s good, I will threaten Nate with physical violence or loss of property if he continues to sell those unhealthy crackers.” Is this a relationship of equals? Certainly not! Joe is placing himself in a position of superiority over both Dave and Nate. This is called a paternalistic relationship.

Some try to justify such paternalistic relationships by arguing that it is for Dave’s own good. But who is to determine what is good for Dave? Among equals, Dave would determine what is good himself—even if Joe is more knowledgeable or intelligent. Perhaps Dave does not share Joe’s faith in modern medical research. Perhaps Dave enjoys the pleasure of eating crackers so much that he is willing to accept the risk of health problems in the future. Perhaps Dave simply is not willing to exercise his mind or strength of will long enough to understand the health risks and choose not to eat the crackers. Joe is free to try to persuade Dave not to eat unhealthy crackers, but not to use the threat of force to interfere in a voluntary transaction between Nate and Dave. Whatever the reason for Dave’s decision to eat the crackers, no matter how irrational or foolish it might seem to Joe, the principle of human equality demands that Dave be permitted to choose for himself.

I value a healthy lifestyle. I enjoy playing sports and hiking with my wife and kids. I want to live a long time so I can enjoy my family relationships and the joys of just being alive. For me liberty is doing these things. But for some, liberty is sugary and salty.

4 Responses to “Sugary, Salty Liberty”

  1. Elise says:

    Nice and readable, Quince. I especially liked the names in your example, as well as your use of the female pronoun :).

  2. Jamie says:

    I have to admit to feeling a little torn in some of these public health issues, most especially in the cases of school lunch. In principle I can only agree that you are 100% on the mark, but in reality society seems to have slowly become disconnected and ignorant (in many cases) of what exactly they are putting into their bodies because of how quick and easy and prepackaged food is now. I’ll say that the more you learn about the level of nutrition (or lack thereof) in food these days it’s hard not to sympathize with regulatory efforts to curb unhealthy trends.

    I can say also that before I married Carly I was shopping for food that I could make quickly and that Naomi would eat without fighting me. I was no victim, but I really did not know the extent to which I was putting horrible crap into our bodies. Now in my case what I was really in need of was an education about food (which Carly gave me in abundance), but I can’t help but feel an incredible, paternalistic even, sense of compassion for the kids who I know get fed crap at school and worse crap at home.

    This is one of those rare issues, where I almost feel myself drifting left. HELP!!!!

  3. Jamie says:

    I forgot to say Quincy, this was a genuinely great piece and I think you have a real talent for this kind of thing. I read probably 10 to 15 op-ed pieces a week so I’m not saying that from a completely ignorant basis but from a political junkie basis. Very very good. Washington Post here you come!!!

  4. John Pawlowski says:

    As a business grad student interning at a major consumer packaged goods food company, I am quite familiar with the behind-the-scenes battle that Fortune 500 food companies make every day in trying to appease both camps (the “paternalistic health conscious” and the “live free and die fat” folks). In short, no one product can satisfy both needs as they come from two diametrically opposed segments of the population.

    The key insight is this: these companies have learned that when they proudly display the message of “Reduced Sodium” (or some similar valid claim) on their product, sales for the SKU (stock keeping unit) promptly and invariably plummet. Why? Because while we all love to give lip service to the evils of improper diet, the vast majority of Americans are not receptive to be told that they are about to sacrifice an enjoyable meal or snack for a bland, “healthier” product. Therefore, we have the Whole Foods establishments to cater to one crowd, and McDonalds to cater to the other. (By the way, these groups are not mutually exclusive and there is quite a bit of overlap.)

    To your point, this is why capitalism exists and freedom of choice has made us the outstanding and varied country that we are. Just remember, the next time you don’t like what’s on your plate, don’t condemn the waiter for bringing what you ordered.

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