Thursday, September 26, 2013

Libertarians and food politics

Marion Nestle
I heard food activist Marion Nestle at Franklin & Marshall College’s Common Hour today. It was a good talk; Nestle is a lively, engaging speaker with a compelling message.

In her view, it’s no wonder U.S. obesity rates doubled between 1980 and 2008. Profit-hungry corporations are spending billions of dollars on marketing junk food to every man, woman and child in the country, portion sizes have expanded like crazy, and government policies have mostly made matters worse, not better.  We need to eat real food, in smaller portions, and we need to curb the power of the food-industrial complex (my term, not hers).

Afterward, there was a Q&A. The first questioner said he was a libertarian, and asked why any government involvement was needed on food issues at all. Nestle had spoken approvingly of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s initiative to limit the size of soft drinks; shouldn’t people be allowed to make their own choices, free of state paternalism?* Nestle responded that government is always involved in food policy, and it’s unrealistic to expect it not to be; the important thing is to align it with public health goals. 

That’s true as far as it goes, but I think a better response would have been to remind the questioner of a story she told midway through her speech.

It seems a group of students in an introductory nutrition class at New York University were shown two soft drink cups, an 8 oz. one and a 64 oz. one, and asked to estimate the number of calories each would contain. The correct answers are about 100 calories and 800 calories, respectively. The thing was, the students’ guesses for the large cup were only about three times bigger than the estimates for the smaller one, even though they were given the ounce numbers. According to Nestle, the students simply refused to believe that any serving of a soft drink, no matter how large, could contain 800 calories.

Isn’t that interesting? Here you have affluent, educated young adults in a nutrition class at a prestigious university, not being exposed to any advertising, facing at least some incentive to get the right answer – yet they still can’t bring themselves to believe that a 64 oz. drink will have eight times the calories of an 8 oz. one. 

What does that say about the judgments people are likely to make in everyday life? We're swamped by time pressure, watching our budgets, tempted at every turn by foods scientifically designed to be as addictive as possible. Even when relevant information is right in front of our noses, we miss it. Those NYU whiffed on a softball question; are we likely to do better? 

The libertarian conceit is that people are smart enough to know their own best interests, should be free to pursue them without government interference and should be left to bear the consequences, good or bad, on their own. When taken to extremes (and it often is), I think libertarianism turns a blind eye to the emotional, habit-laden ways real human beings make most decisions. A successful libertarian regime would require a level of widespread decision-making competence that's hard to square with an NYU class letting naive incredulity trump simple multiplication. 

If Peter Thiel ever gets his island, keep an eye on the diabetes rates. 
 *Bloomberg’s much-mocked soda ban was based on solid behavioral science, according to Nestle. When you ban 32 oz. soda, it’s true that consumers can just buy two 16 oz. ones, but doing so requires just enough extra effort that most people don’t bother. The 16 oz. drink satisfies, them, they stop drinking when it’s done – and the 32 oz. drink’s extra 31 grams of sugar never enters their bloodstream.


  1. The anecdote speaks more to the poor state of math education than it does to our ability to make decisions for ourselves, I'm afraid.

    An astute libertarian, provided opportunity for followup, might have asked Ms. Nestle why she would consider that government involvement was inevitable or desirable, especially as it is demonstrable that many of the unfortunate food choices that are made in today's world are the result of economic forces put in play decades ago by government farm policies. The bright line drawn most often to illustrate this instance of the law of unintended consequences is the one which ties corn and sugar subsidies to the artificially cheap sweeteners used in colas, particularly, but many other processed foods, thereby making those foods cheaper, and easier for the economically disadvantaged to reach for.

    Ms. Nestle, such a libertarian might argue, asks for a government remedy to a largely government created problem, citing government inevitability as a rationale. What if government were taken out of the equation altogether?

    (Aside. Ms. Nestle comes by her concern over corporate over promotion of marginally nutritious foods naturally, I have to believe, as it was the Nestle corporation which is accused of "hooking" moms in economically less developed areas of the world on baby formula, creating a nutritional crisis among children in those areas. I respect her efforts along these lines, and believe the effort performs a valuable public service.)

  2. Sorry, second comment. Ms. Nestle may cite behavioral science in her defense of Bloomberg, but it is also true that two 16 oz sodas cost more than a single 32 oz soda. Have we computed where, on the profit scale, these two combined forces fall? And what of other possible applications of the principle? Shall we restrict restaurants to 8oz portions of red meat on their plates? Shall we tell sandwich makers that a certain amount of bread, or mayonnaise is all that's permitted? That only one paper napkin may be distributed, in order to control landfill and recycling center use? That all shoes sold shall have a certain thickness of sole and degree of arch support, and that they be properly fitted by licensed shoe clerks before being sold? Of course I could continue.

    Once upon a time we recognized that people might make foolish choices, but that ham handed attempts such as Bloomberg's to save such people from themselves had far, far larger implications than the particular societal problem supposedly being addressed. Anyone who complains against the NSA or the TSA should be able to understand the connection among all these intrusions by a well intended government. We seem no longer to be able to see the big picture when considering these programs. And that, too, is more a failure of our education system than anything else.

    If Mr. Bloomberg, or anyone, for that matter, wants to work to educate me as to my follies, I am open to the idea. But for him to want to employ the resources of the government to force me to change, on whatever topic it occurs to him to want me to change, is a bridge too far, in my opinion.