New York City has ordered restaurants to stop selling food made with trans fat. "It is a dangerous and unnecessary ingredient," says the health commissioner. Gee, I'm all for good health, but shouldn't it be a matter of individual choice?
A New York Times headline about the ban reads: "A Model for Other Cities."
"A model for what, exactly?" asks George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux. "Petty tyranny? Or perhaps for similarly inspired bans on other voluntary activities with health risks? Clerking in convenience stores? Walking in the rain?"
Trans fats give foods like French fries that texture I like. They are probably bad for me, but Radley Balko of Reason points out that "despite all of the dire warnings about our increased intake of trans-fats over the last 20 years, heart disease in America has been in swift decline ... So, if they're killing us, they're not doing a very good job."
But that's not the point. In a free society the issue is: Who decides what I eat, the government or me? It's not as though information about trans fats is hard to come by. Scaremongers like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) are all too happy to tell you about the dangers, and they have no trouble getting their declarations of doom on television and into newspapers.
Unfortunately, CSPI is not content to tell you avoid trans fats. It sues restaurants like McDonald's and KFC for using them, and urges governments to ban them.
But why do the health police get to take away my choices? Adults should be expected to take responsibility for their own health.
Often the health police say they must "protect the children." But children are the responsibility of their parents. When the state assumes the role of parent, it makes children of all of us.
The food prohibitionists don't understand that there are ways to influence people's behavior without resorting to coercion -- remember, coercion is the essence of government. The public fuss about harm from trans fats has already induced many food makers to remove them. It's suddenly become a competitive advantage to boast that your products are trans-fat-free. Such voluntary action is the best way to move toward healthier food.
Why isn't that good enough for the prohibitionists? Why must they enlist the iron hand of government?
I think they dislike freedom of choice. They know the right way, so it's only right that they force everyone to follow them. That's the philosophy of prohibitionists.
The Center for Consumer Freedom is running ads saying: "Now that New York has banned cooking oils with trans fat (the same substance as margarine) ... it opens the door to banning so much more! Using the same logic, let's get rid of New York style pizza (seriously, do you need all that cheese?), beef hot dogs (tofu dogs almost taste the same), corned beef (turkey breast is much leaner). ... "
Yes, I know the center's sponsors include restaurants and food companies, but still, it has a good point.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who died a few weeks ago, would have agreed. He was the author of "Free to Choose" and "free to choose" sums up Friedman's philosophy. He would have cringed at the banning of trans fats, just as he objected to the earlier banning of products like the sugar substitute called cyclamates.
Over 25 years ago, Friedman wrote, "If we continue on this path, there is no doubt where it will end. If the government has the responsibility of protecting us from dangerous substances, the logic surely calls for prohibiting alcohol and tobacco. . . . Insofar as the government has information not generally available about the merits or demerits of the items we ingest or the activities we engage in, let it give us the information. But let it leave us free to choose what chances we want to take with our own lives."