Instinct tells us to fear poison. If our ancestors were not cautious about what they put in their mouths, they would not have survived long enough to produce us.
Unfortunately, a side effect of that cautious impulse is that whenever someone claims that some chemical—or food ingredient, like fat—is a menace, we are primed to believe it. That makes it easy for government to leap in and play the role of protector.
But for every study that says X is bad for you, another study disagrees. How is a layman to decide? I used to take consumer activists' word for it. Heck, they want to save the world, while industry just wants to get rich. Now I know better. The activists want money, too—and fame.
To arbitrate, it's intuitive to turn to government—except…government scientists have conflicts, too.
Who becomes a regulator except people who want to regulate? Some come from activist groups that hate industry. Some come from industry and want to convert their government job into a higher-paying industry job. Some just want attention. They know that saying, "X will kill you," gets more attention than saying that X is probably safe.
I don't suggest that we ignore the experts and eat like pigs. But, as I argue in my new book, No, They Can't: Why Government Fails—But Individuals Succeed, the scientific question should not overshadow the more fundamental issue. Who should decide what you can eat: you? Or the state? Should government decide what we may eat, any more than it decides where we live or how long our hair will be? The Food Police claim that they just want to help us make informed choices. But that's not all they want to do. They try to get government to force us to make healthy choices.
The moral issue of force versus persuasion applies even if all the progressives' ideas about nutrition are correct. Even if I would be better off eating no fat and salt, that would not justify forcing restaurants to stop serving me those things. Either we live in a free society or we don't.
It is no coincidence that the push for more food regulation came at a time when Congress obsessed about the rising cost of medical care. When government pays for your health care, it will inevitably be drawn into regulating your personal life. First, politicians promise to pay. Then, they propose to control you.
Where does it stop? If we must control diet to balance the government's budget, will the health squad next ban skydiving and extramarital sex? How about another try at Prohibition?
Government attracts do-gooders and meddlers who believe that, as Mark Twain put it, "Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits." Or, as Twain's spiritual descendant, H.L. Mencken, said about Puritanism, government health officials seem to have "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
Often the Food Police strike an innocent pose, claiming that they just want to give people information. Information is good. But it's not free. Mandated calorie signs in restaurants cost money. Those costs are passed on to consumers, and the endless parade of calorie counts and warning labels make us numb to more important warnings—like, "This Coffee Is Scalding Hot."
It's not as if dietary information isn't already available. Health and diet websites abound. Talk shows routinely discuss the latest books on diet and nutrition. TV diet gurus are celebrities. That's enough. We have information. We don't need government force.
Let the marketplace of diet ideas flourish. Let claim meet counterclaim, but let's not let government put its very heavy thumb on one side of the scale.
The assumption behind so much of government's policy regarding food (and everything else) is that everything good should be encouraged by law and everything bad should be discouraged.
But since everything is arguably helpful or harmful, this is a formula for totalitarianism.
Thomas Hobbes assumed an all-powerful government was necessary to protect us from violence. He called it Leviathan. But he never imagined Leviathan would plan our dinners.
John Stossel (read his Reason archive) is the host of Stossel, which airs Thursdays on the FOX Business Network at 9 pm ET and is rebroadcast on Saturdays and Sundays at 9pm & midnight ET. Go here for more info.