Pushing Back Against Food Nudges

Should libertarian paternalists in government nudge you to make "better" food choices?


Nearly a decade ago, the humor publication McSweeney's pitted two popular breakfast cereals against one another in a brilliant sendup of an archetypal David Brooks column. Brooks, in case you didn't know, is a New York Times columnist. I don't read his work regularly, but it's often taken to task in these here (and here and here) pages.

According to the McSweeney's parody, members of the American electorate belonged to one of two camps—the "Lucky Charmers" and the "Cheerioians." And Brooks, who the spoof claims has "a pathological need to seem reasonable," briefly floats a choice between the two before advocating in favor of the oaty choice readers knew he'd find to be the more reasonable one.

Nine years later, Brooks himself has seemingly circled back to the McSweeney's parody with a formulaic column in support of so-called libertarian paternalism.

To bolster his assumptions, Brooks focuses in part on food choice architecture.

Libertarian paternalism around food posits that government shouldn't ban foods but should instead make the choices wise government employees want you to make easier for you to exercise and the choices those same bureaucrats think are less desirable more difficult for you to make.

Government's job here, Brooks argues, is to "gently bias[] the context" in which we make choices.

"It's hard to feel that a cafeteria is insulting my liberty if it puts the healthy fruit in a prominent place and the unhealthy junk food in some faraway corner," he writes, invoking a scenario from page 1 of Cass Sunstein's influential 2008 book in support of libertarian paternalism, Nudge. "Or, most notoriously, government could make it harder for you to buy big, sugary sodas."

Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic gets to the heart of the matter in a good rejoinder to Brooks on the cafeteria issue.

"So long as every cafeteria is free, under the law, to organize its food as it sees fit, I am all for inculcating a norm whereby the healthy stuff is prominently displayed and accessible," he writes. "But do I want the federal government regulating food placement in every American cafeteria?"

No. And as long as it's not government that's inculcating that norm, I'm all in with Friedersdorf.

Another good reply to Brooks might be one made by Sunstein himself, who writes in a forthcoming Yale Law Review article (an article Brooks cites in his column) that "the Joyless Cafeteria, with the tastiest foods relatively hidden," is an "objectionable" solution.

Still another opponent of the argument Brooks advances might be… New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote in 2011 that nanny state paternalism has "helped undermine personal responsibility and…. will have to be cut back[.]"

No longer.

"I'd say the anti-paternalists win the debate in theory but the libertarian paternalists win it empirically," Brooks wrote in his column last week.

But does the empirical evidence Brooks presents support his claim? The Obama administration sure thinks so, Brooks and others note. And Brooks does cite a few examples in which he says the "concrete benefits of these programs… are empirically verifiable."

Even if I were to concede that point, there are plenty of programs that might be called soft or libertarian paternalism and that yield negative outcomes.

For example, federal farm subsidies quietly influence the choices made by farmers and consumers and lead many in both groups to believe they're better off—a key precept of libertarian paternalism.

Subsidies influence farmers to produce some foods (like corn, soy, dairy, and sugar) to the exclusion of other foods (like arugula, bok choy, and yams). It's no surprise that the former foods are the ones most farmers grow, and that they're much more frequent choices among eaters.

The noodgy allure of farm subsidies is that farmers get money and certainty, while consumers get abundant and cheaper food at the grocery.

Another example of libertarian paternalism around food is menu labeling. Its proponents refer to laws mandating calorie counts on fast food and other restaurant menus as a gentle nudge that requires businesses to provide us with information the government thinks we need but still allows us to make our own choices. The hope by government is that we'll choose items with fewer calories and be better off for exercising that choice. But studies have shown mandatory restaurant menu labeling does not work in practice. Worse, a recent study showed mandated menu labeling can actually cause consumers to choose foods with more calories.

So both farm subsidies and mandatory menu labeling present firm empirical evidence that libertarian paternalism doesn't work, right?

You might think so. But Sunstein's Nudge writing partner, Richard Thaler, would likely argue that these failures simply call for more testing on the part of government.

"No one knows the answers to every problem, and not every idea works, so it is vital to test," Thaler said earlier this month.

Of course. Who else but a cadre of bureaucrats who've never met you could possibly through trial and error determine what's best for you to eat?

"The cafeteria owners may be imperfect decisionmakers," writes The Atlantic's Friedersdorf, "but they still possess more information than faraway government rulemakers—and aren't lobbied ruthlessly to make certain rules."

He's right. And consumers possess even more information about their own personal preferences than do the cafeteria owners.

Thomas Jefferson warned more than 225 years ago that we should never allow bureaucratic "inquisitors"—"Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons"—to dictate our food choices. Fallible bureaucrats were then, and remain now, ineffective as our decisionmakers. As Jefferson makes clear, their very basis also goes against the American ideals of individual rights and limited government.

Given the choice, we'd do best to choose Jefferson over Brooks and Sunstein. We must resist the clucky charms of libertarian paternalism. Cheerio.