Friday, August 12, 2011

Food police and technology standards

William Duggan said that creativity is taking two ideas from different concepts and combining them, such as how Henry Ford's breakthrough moving assembly line was just the Chicago stockyard where meat was moved along rails combined with a stationary Oldsmobile 1901 assembly system.

Earlier this morning it hit me that two unrelated ideas on my radar belong together: Flawed food control policies where consumers are forbidden or restricted from from buying foods with certain non-toxic ingredients, such as bans on trans fats or soda in schools, is similar to a technology standards, where policies try to bring about certain outcomes by forcing firms to use specific techniques, such as requiring catalytic converters, instead of targeting the actual outcomes, such as emissions.

For a more detailed account of the problems with technology standards, see my post from last year.

Supporters of legislation that uses a flawed technology standard are prone to present the issue as a false dichotomy, such as saying if you want to do something about air pollution, you have to support their bill to force factories to use certain emission-reducing devices.

It's important to avoiding thinking in terms of passing a regulation to fight air pollution or doing nothing, but instead to ask what form should the regulation take. Is that specific approach the best we can do to reach our goal, or should we just enforce that the goal be met, and give people the freedom to meet it their own way?

Banning soda is not a goal unto itself. The real goal is to reduce obesity and improve health. It is, for all intents and purposes, a technology standard. While I see improving the health of the public as a noble goal, the tactics being employed to reach that goal are flawed, in addition to being immoral.

However, the version of a performance standard here would be to fine or punish people for being overweight or unhealthy - and the ethical problems with such a policy are obvious. It would be instantly recognized as a great intrusion on liberty and privacy to weigh people and cart them off to prison if they didn't meet a rigid standard.

Yet, I see the restriction on what foods they can purchase as no less a vile trespass.

What about tobacco restrictions? The biggest issue with smoking is lung cancer, and how would the public feel about fining people with lung cancer? It wouldn't go over well, not nearly as well as telling adults under what circumstances they are allowed to smoke.

If you want to fight obesity, your best bet is to fight obesity itself. This insistence on smacking popular targets like fast food or soda - and without providing firm evidence that it will achieve the goal - is just showboating. I have seen a lot of policies and programs with the intention of fighting obesity, and I have never seen the desired results play out. Is there a community with 1980s level of obesity out there that activists can point to as a success?

Forcing people to follow your system robs them of the chance to create a better system - be it for reducing air pollution or visual pollution at the beach. The problem for the well-intentioned interventionists is that the performance standard is so obviously fascistic in nature, so they will continue to push their intrusive, ineffective technology standards.

EDIT: Mark made some good points that I wasn't clear enough in my conclusion. I have reworded several key areas and tacked on another paragraph to hit my point home.


  1. I find this essay equivocal. You claim improving the health of the public is "a noble goal" and you ask if perhaps we should just "enforce that the goal be met". Noble goal for whom? Enforce how? And more importantly, by what right?

    I'm sure you're just being deliberately vague, but your laser focus on "results" cedes the larger argument. OK, says your opponent, you're right, soda bans don't reduce obesity. But here's my new statist program which will DEFINITELY work, and you have no evidence against it...

  2. Mark, you're absolutely right. See the edit I made.

  3. It is not difficult to make an argument in favor of the immorality associated with obesity. I did it last year. If being human (or having consciousness) is something we value highly, and if human life ought to be protected, then it follows that mistreating one's own body has something wrong with it. I have no doubt that becoming willingly unhealthy is a clear mistreatment.

    And other arguments can be made as well. An obese population is far less economically effective than a fit one in many ways, whether it's from increased sick days or overuse of health care policies. To use a Kantian hypothetical imperative, if we want our economy to do well, it would behoove us to find a way to discourage obesity.

    And yet another argument, the banning of children from eating shit food at school derives itself from the democratic process. If most people are standing up and saying, "Look, part of public education involves feeding kids. Why should I pay for my kid to get fed crap? Devote my taxes to more nutritious meals", then I see no problem. In fact, I'm hard pressed to even imagine how anyone else can find a problem with this.

    And finally, as if three top-of-the-head, so-easy-to-make arguments weren't enough, healthy people tend to be happier than unhealthy people. The happiness itself is an abstract concept, but it most certainly has very real effects. Unlike "liberty", it is not permanently confined to its abstraction. People feel it and know it and want it and need it. Besides, despite the poor philosophies of so many modern libertarians*, it is not liberty itself which is good. Liberty is meant as a conduit to happiness; it is that human happiness which is good.

    *I am speaking generally.