November 15, 2004

Britain's unjust war on junk food

In a well intentioned but poorly conceived plan to fight its growing obesity problem, Britain plans to forbid junk food advertisements during the hours children are most likely to be watching television. Here, I abstract from the question of whether this violates the right to freedom of speech. I also abstract from the question of efficacy. (In Sweden, a similar law has had zero effect on the incidence of childhood obesity.) So there are already some issues I have with the advertising ban. But Health Secretary Dr. John Reid startled Britons with a drastic second step: implementation of "traffic-light" warnings on food. The plan is: "Sugar, salt, and fat-laden foods such as sweets or burgers will display red labels on their packaging to signify they should be eaten sparingly, with ‘virtuous' foods such as vegetables marked green to encourage their consumption. Foods such as cheese, high in fat but nutritious, will be labelled amber."

As Andrew Stuttaford succinctly commented, "The nanny state finally goes completely, irreversibly nuts."

America shares a fair amount with Britain. She birthed us. So it's hard to see her like this: confused, demented, senile. But, sympathetic though we are, we must try dispassionately to analyze her, to discover what went wrong, so the same fate doesn't befall us. It hasn't yet, so all hope is not lost.

Somewhere in the midst of the cultural revolution that occurred in Britain in the Twentieth Century, Britons subscribed to the liberal doctrine of condescension. Liberals think that people are incompetent, that people need the government to make decisions for them. This condescension is nowhere more evident than in "traffic-light" warning labels. Food already lists calories, fat grams, and other nutritional information. But the problem, if you ask a liberal, is that the average Joe is simply too stupid to read the nutrition label. He needs a three-part disctinction: red, yellow, green. Suppose the traffic lights don't decrease obesity? Ah, then it must be because Joe is too stupid to understand the importance of the colors. The liberals will want to tax junk food or ration it or stop selling it in grocery stores, something, anything, to get it through Joe's thick skull that by God they are serious about this health thing. Liberals view themselves as elite saviors of the stupid, ignorant, myopic masses, in Britain and America alike.

Conservatives, on the other hand, assume that citizens are rational. Conservatives prefer to leave citizens to maximize their own self-interests. And you know what? Turns out, Americans resent condescension. Turns out, Americans want to make their own decisions. That's why sixty million Americans voted to re-elect President Bush. I believe that this spunk Americans have will at least stave off a traffic-light labeling system for several years, if not prevent it completely.

I think that, deep down, Britons don't want to be insulted, either. They don't want to be baby-sat. But Britons have been told for so long that they are incompetent that they believe it without question. The British conservative party, in the words of defense spokesman Nicholas Soames, is doing "fucking awful."

Supposing the Britons do carry their war on junk food through to its bitter end, the amount of damage they can do with all their traffic lights and lawyers and public service announcements is bounded. The damage will be similar to the havoc Britain's and America's war on tobacco wreaked. "Inalienable" rights will be alienated. Excise taxes will hit the poor disproportionately. Rationing or taxation will spur a black market. (Can you imagine? Moonshine sugar? Back-alley cream?) An unpleasant result, to be sure, but no apocalypse.

I worry most about the rationale for Britain's war on junk food than on this war's immediate consequences. The rationale is so broadly applicable, so perversely anti-freedom and anti-accountability, so wildly unreasonable, so well intentioned that we should be very afraid. We must not underestimate the terrible power of unreasoned good intentions.