Government Can Only Do So Much to Protect Us From Ourselves
By Ken K. Gourdin
I agree with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city’s Department of Health. We would all be better off if we were to consume fewer empty calories. It’s also true that all of us, to a certain extent, pay for the poor health choices of others. To a certain extent, we pay for the consequences visited upon people who choose to consume alcohol excessively, who choose to use tobacco products, who choose to avoid exercise, and who choose to consume more calories than they expend. We pay these consequences in the form of increased health insurance premiums and, perhaps, in the form of higher taxes through which the government subsidizes their health care.
To a certain extent, government can regulate behavior by taxing it. Government attempts to discourage the use of alcohol and tobacco by taxing these substances. Those who use tobacco and alcohol incur the consequences of the government’s policies because they pay the increased taxes on these substances for the purpose of purchasing them, while those who do not use these substances do not incur those consequences. Provided that users minimize the adverse consequences of their choice to use such substances by, for example, not consuming them to excess, not drinking and driving, or not consuming them where such consumption is likely to harm others, the only ones who incur the consequences of such use are those who purchase the substances and who thus pay the taxes imposed upon them.
And however hypocritical one might think that the Coca-Cola Company’s current campaign to encourage responsible use of its products is, that campaign is right about two things: one, all calories count; and two, if one consumes more calories than he expends, he’ll gain weight. A new government regulation isn’t necessary to tell us something we can discover by looking in the mirror. And whatever the dangers of overconsumption of soda and other empty calories are, there is a reason why alcohol and tobacco are more heavily regulated than are empty-calorie foods: the dangers of excess consumption of the first two substances are more direct, while the dangers of overconsumption of the third is more remote. It depends on a variety of factors such as weight, activity level, overall fitness level, metabolism, and so on, while the dangers of overconsuming the first two substances are both more inherent to their use and more direct.
Try as it might, there is simply no way for the government to protect us from all the ways in which we might harm ourselves. If it were to attempt to do so, it would infringe on the freedoms upon which the United States of America was founded. And from a fiscal standpoint, such an attempt would worsen the already-dire budgetary situation in which the nation finds itself. Intrinsically, most of us know what we should do to stay healthy: we don’t need the United States Department of Agriculture or the United States Department of Health and Human Services to tell us that.
Would it be better for us to consume fewer empty calories and to get a certain amount of exercise every day than for us to be sedentary couch potatoes who binge on nutrition-free foods? Certainly. In an infinite number of possible universes, is there at least one such universe in which agents (with arrest powers, no less!) of the Department of Health and Human Services could monitor our exercise habits and in which agents of the Department of Agriculture could monitor our intake of nutritious foods? I suppose. But there’s a big difference between “could” and “should”: even if the government could do such things, that doesn’t mean it should.
And the ill-advised nature of the attempts described in the preceding paragraph also doesn’t mean that the Obama Administration, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, isn’t going to attempt to do something similar: countless foods sold in stores, which currently are not labeled with their nutritional content, will need to be so labeled under the Act. And that includes both high-nutrition foods such as individual fruits and vegetables and their lower-nutrition, higher-calorie counterparts, such as cookies and cakes which are made in-store. Such measures are a perfect example of the law of diminishing returns as it relates to regulation: the more something is regulated, the less any given regulation is likely to contribute to avoiding the harm the regulation is intended to prevent.
Very few people will read the labels which those items will require under the Act, and even if they do read those labels, they are unlikely to be dissuaded from purchasing and consuming those items on the basis of information which those labels contain. Conversely, the costs related to analyzing each item and labeling it with its nutritional content are likely to be enormous, and those costs will be passed on to the consumer. Once that happens, it’s possible (indeed, it’s likely, in my view) that the Act’s good intentions will backfire: many will actually be dissuaded from buying lower-calorie, higher-nutrition items because of their increased cost.