On Happy Meals and the Nanny State

The latest highly-publicized, hotly-ridiculed move by my adopted city of San Francisco was to ban the Happy Meal. And so once again we have lobbed a softball to conservatives and libertarians across the nation, who relish any opportunity to point west and say, “See? See the nanny state? See those people who are too dumb, or too lazy, to [in this case] decide for themselves what their kids should and shouldn’t eat?”

My libertarian-leaning friends here (yes, even San Francisco has them) were against the Happy Meal ban on principle of course. To them, it represents paternalistic government overreach. I personally dislike the ban because it’s ridiculous and trivial. But regardless of one’s reasons for disliking the ban (I don’t know anyone who supports it), I’m not aware of anyone who cared enough about the issue to take any action opposing it.

The first anti-smoking laws in the U.S. were met with similarly principled but irresolute opposition. More of the same, more recently, with New York City’s ban on trans-fats.

What is it that makes New York and San Francisco so hospitable to these nanny laws? Are we, the citizens of these cities, simply big government liberals by nature? Are we too busy with our fast-paced urban lives to get involved in politics? Are we so affluent and comfortable and free from real suffering that we need to fish for new (non-)problems to solve? Do we not value our individual rights?

Perhaps.

But there are other reasons.

For one thing, there’s no hard line between issues of individual rights and issues of public policy. It’s fuzzy. This is especially true in cities, where day and night we confront the habits and behaviors of our fellow citizens. For example, how do we reconcile one person’s freedom to smoke in public with another person’s freedom to breathe clean air? There are three options: The factions can battle it out every day in the streets. Non-smokers can silently tolerate the dirty air. Or we can ask the state to settle the issue for us and end the war.

We’ve gone with the third option because it actually gives the greatest amount of freedom to the greatest number of people. The factions are freed from daily battles with each other, and non-smokers are free to breathe clean air. The only losers are the smokers. To put it more simply, anti-smoking laws succeed in cities because most people are non-smokers. A single smoldering cigarette stirs the ire of a hundred non-smokers in its vicinity. Even people who believe on principle that a man should be free to smoke anywhere he wants are annoyed when he lights up beside them, so the principle is not enough to motivate them to oppose the anti-smoking law. People gripe about the nanny state while they enjoy the cleaner air.

Some issues are not so tangible. How, for example, do we reconcile a person’s right to drive without wearing a seatbelt with everyone else’s right not to pay that person’s emergency bill? Hardcore libertarians might wonder why we can’t have both. But how would this play out? At the crash scene, should the person calling 911 check to see who was wearing a seatbelt and who wasn’t, then look into each victims’ ability to pay, so that the ambulance knows whether to respond, whom to treat? The American obesity epidemic, and all the accompanying cases of diabetes, heart disease, etc. raises similar questions.

If we want to minimize our contribution to other people’s hospital bills – for trauma or diabetes – then one option is to make it costlier for people to drive without seatbelts and eat unhealthy fast food.

But the people still ask themselves, “What will they ban next?” They think, “this is facism!” while also thinking, “well, I try to avoid trans fats anyway, and at least now I don’t have to wonder about my restaurant order” and “I can’t remember the last time I bought a Happy Meal.” Again, the principle alone is not enough to start the revolution, because it turns out people don’t like trans-fats, and they don’t care about Happy Meals.┬áBut they continue to fret about the “next” crazy law, letting their imaginations run to logical extremes. “Where will they draw the line?” the people ask.

Eventually, there it is. The line. Someone proposes a law that actually goes too far, and the people rise up in sufficient numbers to strike it down. This is the difference between how much government the people say they want and how much they actually want.

This doesn’t mean the Happy Meal law is a good idea, but is it fascism if no one cares?