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Libertarians: Sometimes Right

[ 32 ] July 31, 2008 |

To push the points made by Matt further, [update: and to disagree with Ezra], I have to say that libertarians are right about regulations banning further fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles. First of all, I object to the ends of the legislation, because I don’t think for the most part it’s the job of government to make basic health/pleasure tradeoffs involving food for its citizens. This isn’t to say that I’m a strict libertarian. I have no objection at all to NYC-type regulations requiring restaurants to inform customers about the nutritional content of their food: allowing customers to make informed choices is a necessary and desirable function of the state (and I would think that even a sophisticated libertarian should see these regulations as acceptable.) I also support the recent bans on trans fat bans in New York and L.A. because they represent a substantial benefit for public health while having a trivial effect on consumer choice (indeed, in most cases using alternative fats will make food not only healthier but better.) But these goals are going to far; I don’t think suppressing the market for fast food like this makes much sense.

But even if I thought that the end was a legitimate function of government, as Ezra says there’s the additional problem that it’s not clear if the policy has any chance of accomplishing its ends. It would be nice if a lot of Burger Kings and Carl’s Jrs. got replaced by cheap, high-quality, low-margin grocery stores, and it would also be nice if I had points on The Dark Knight‘s gross, and the policy in question is equally as likely to accomplish both. And there’s no magical health or even taste advantages that derive from having sitdown service; I’d rather have a Wendy’s near me than an Applebee’s or Denny’s. Suppressing one type of business in the hope that a better one will spring up in its place is not a plan, and the food policies that encourage fast food chains over good indpenedent restaurants and good food stores need to be addressed at the federal level.

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Comments (32)

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  1. Mike says:

    Not so fast there, Scott. Applebee’s has a fantastic salad bar.

  2. NBarnes says:

    Trans fats aren’t ‘food’ in any sense of the term. They are an industrial contaminant and a metabolic poison that we have no way of healthily processing. They have no more place in our food than E. coli does.
    Sorry, hobbyhorse there.

  3. bago says:

    So you’re saying they belong in your intestines?

  4. McWyrm says:

    Hmm – for years I lived in a neighborhood that denied entry to any chain resturant.
    How is this (or the situation you alude to) different from simple zoning restrictions?

  5. Rob says:

    Yep, most towns have huge restrictions on the amount of homes that can be built in a given year. And what type of housing. But since that allows for increases in home value there’s money on both sides so its not the quick payday hyping fast food provides for Cato.

  6. matt says:

    Why do you think this sort of thing is something that should be addressed on the federal level? Maybe it is, but that’s surely not obvious. My impression is that how things things work will depend heavily on local factors are unlikely to be known or knowable on the federal level and so better managed on more local levels, whether state or smaller. If the feds what to pony up money that’s one thing, but it’s not clear to me why regulation or other such actions should be federal here.

  7. Matt Weiner says:

    I don’t think that Scott’s argument is that these regulations are inherently illegitimate in a way that zoning restrictions aren’t, just that they’re a bad idea. (I’m not sure if this is even your point, McWyrm.)
    Also, the kind of zoning Rob discusses is (according to the new urbanist types I read) a horrible blight, leading to sprawl and exacerbating economic and racial segregation. See here on sprawl and here on segregation. And check out some of John Cheever’s Shady Hill stories (IIRC “The Death of Justina” has some funny stuff about zoning).

  8. Matt Weiner says:

    matt — I think what needs to be addressed at the federal level is agricultural policies which wind up making fast food cheaper and slow food more expensive, in the way that federal policies wind up encouraging corn syrup, but I should stop trying to read Scott’s mind now.

  9. drip says:

    in the way that federal policies wind up encouraging corn syrup, while eliminating domestic cane sugar,imposing tarriffs on imported sugar and ethanol and encouraging the use of corn syrup crop as fuel but I should stop trying to read Scott’s mind now.also.
    Either way, listing ingredients is a pretty easy way to promote healthy eating among those who wish to do so. As for the rest, well, smoking is bad for you.

  10. McWyrm says:

    Matt;
    I am familiar and generally sympathetic to new urbanism arguments re: zoning.
    I suppose it was the libertarian canard that tripped me up – if Scott isn’t arguing that these restrictions are inherently illegitimate, what’s with the references to libertarians?
    (rereading) … ah, I see. Scott interprets this to be entirly an issues of food/health and doesn’t think it’s a legitimate method for addressing these issues. Well. Maybe.
    It seems to me that it would be more appropriate to argue against this restrictions as bad policy, not illegitimate exersise of government power or some such rot.
    Why shouldn’t local governments be able to restrict the sorts of buisnesses that can set up shop? Scott raises the question but doesn’t address it in the general case.

  11. ThresherK says:

    Either way, listing ingredients is a pretty easy way to promote healthy eating among those who wish to do so. As for the rest, well, smoking is bad for you.
    So if one’s on foot, no car, and can only walk to a BK, McD, and Carls’ Jr, this is like choosing smoking because…
    I say do it with zoning. Unless the greasepits there are mobbed a la the student rush half-price ticket window at the polo match (intentionally unrealistically snooty reference), someone can make the case that their neighborhood doesn’t need another.

  12. NonyNony says:

    and I would think that even a sophisticated libertarian should see these regulations [requiring restaurants to inform customers about nutritional content] as acceptable.
    Yeah, you’d think so. After all, if you’re going to advocate that everything be handled by a free market model, you should at least make some noise requiring that we get as close to “perfect information” for everyone in all transactions.
    Amazingly, I’ve never been able to get a big-L Libertarian to explain to me a coherent reason for objections to these kinds of requirements. They tend to swerve off into “government is bad” knee-jerk mode instead.

  13. I think what needs to be addressed at the federal level is agricultural policies which wind up making fast food cheaper and slow food more expensive, in the way that federal policies wind up encouraging corn syrup
    Yes.

  14. Matt Weiner says:

    if Scott isn’t arguing that these restrictions are inherently illegitimate, what’s with the references to libertarians?
    Wasn’t it about health/pleasure tradeoffs not being the government’s domain, rather than what kind of business should go where? I’m less libertarian here, because I think people have really bad information about what the health tradeoffs really are.
    (And calorie counts are a pretty crude signal — one of the things about government-mandated nutrient info is the fact of the mandate tells you that the stuff is bad. When trans fats info was mandated, packaged food became trans-fat free; but if, say, sulfite info was mandated in the sam way I’m pretty sure foods would become sulfite-free. It’s not because everybody knows exactly what the consequences of trans fats are, it’s because the labeling requirement lets you know you don’t want them. I think this is a big success, as I understand it NBarnes is right.)

  15. Well, I side more on the liberal side of this than the liberterian.
    It may well be a bad law because the unintended consequences or underlying issues are not being addressed. I don’t think the whining about the “nanny state” is as valid an objection.

  16. It seems to me that it would be more appropriate to argue against this restrictions as bad policy, not illegitimate exersise of government power or some such rot.
    Why shouldn’t local governments be able to restrict the sorts of buisnesses that can set up shop? Scott raises the question but doesn’t address it in the general case.

    Yeah, why shouldn’t they? After all, the right to privacy only applies to aborting fetuses, not to the foods we eat.

    • Johnny Sack says:

      Dunno why I’m reading old posts on the Saturday night, but this is one of the dumbest comments I read on this site, and you are a simple-minded caricature of a conservative.

  17. McWyrm says:

    Wasn’t it about health/pleasure tradeoffs not being the government’s domain, rather than what kind of business should go where?
    Plenty of reasons to argue against this as bad policy. Should government make health/pleasure tradeoffs for its citizens? Well, probably not. But that’s a different question than “Should government be able to forbid fast food resturants from operating in a certain local?”
    Granted, it isn’t clear that Scott intended to raise the 2nd question. His references to libertarians threw me off.
    After all, the right to privacy only applies to aborting fetuses, not to the foods we eat.
    Wow – troll much? When we start discussing the virtue of government mandating what can and can’t be eaten (privately), I’m sure you’ll have lots to contribute. Until then, though … not so much.

  18. McWyrm says:

    Wasn’t it about health/pleasure tradeoffs not being the government’s domain, rather than what kind of business should go where?
    Plenty of reasons to argue against this as bad policy. Should government make health/pleasure tradeoffs for its citizens? Well, probably not. But that’s a different question than “Should government be able to forbid fast food resturants from operating in a certain local?”
    Granted, it isn’t clear that Scott intended to raise the 2nd question. His references to libertarians threw me off.
    After all, the right to privacy only applies to aborting fetuses, not to the foods we eat.
    Wow – troll much? When we start discussing the virtue of government mandating what can and can’t be eaten (privately), I’m sure you’ll have lots to contribute. Until then, though … not so much.

  19. Matt Weiner says:

    Well, he didn’t say that government shouldn’t have the power to legislate this, just that he objected to the end — that seems to me to be the libertarianish impulse.
    Maybe we’re thinking about two kinds of libertarians — I think Scott is thinking of one who is skeptical of government regulations on public policy grounds rather than one who thinks that government shouldn’t even have the power to regulate.

  20. McWyrm says:

    Maybe we’re thinking about two kinds of libertarians — I think Scott is thinking of one who is skeptical of government regulations on public policy grounds rather than one who thinks that government shouldn’t even have the power to regulate.
    Yeah, that’s definetly what’s going on.
    Although … do you imagine there are actual libertarians who accept that governments should have the power to regulate? And when did libertarians pick up the “skeptical of government” franchise?
    At any rate – yeah, looks like I miss read Scott’s intent.

  21. mattH says:

    It’s not because everybody knows exactly what the consequences of trans fats are, it’s because the labeling requirement lets you know you don’t want them.
    From the study I read, if you have a 2000 calorie diet, and 40 calories (2%) are from trans-fats, you have a 98% higher chance of having a heart attack.
    Also, in the U.S. if your product has less than a half a gram of trans-fats per serving, it can list it as zero grams. That’s still pretty high considering most hydrogenated oils are fourth or lower on the ingredient list.

  22. Wow – troll much? When we start discussing the virtue of government mandating what can and can’t be eaten (privately), I’m sure you’ll have lots to contribute. Until then, though … not so much.
    Ah. So I’m free to eat a Big Mac, even though nobody is free to sell it to me. Thanks. Thomas Jefferson salutes you for your clear commitment to liberty.
    I wonder how well that would go over with abortion clinics: the government isn’t banning abortion (privately) — just preventing anybody from selling them.

  23. Matt Weiner says:

    mattH, right, but the point (which I’m making up, I have no data on this) is that trans fats aren’t disappearing because people know those numbers; they’re disappearing because people know that trans fats are bad in some way. And they know that because suddenly everything has to label how much trans fat it has, and everything is saying “no trans fats!” I think it’s a good thing that this mechanism has driven trans fats off the grocery shelves, because of the stats you cite. I also think that it’s not just a matter of consumers getting information.
    Though it does seem disturbing if they can advertise trans-fat-free foods with a significant amount of it, especially considering the shenanigans they often play with serving sizes.

  24. DocAmazing says:

    Mr. Nieporent–
    How about this: I’ll set up a clinic down the street from your house, with large signs advertising cut-rate D&Cs.
    Let’s compare apples to apples, shall we?

  25. Robert Halford says:

    Eh, I live in the neighborhood in question, unlike (I think?) everyone else who has commented on this blog. As always in situations in which I’ve had a more ground-eye view of a widely discussed problem, I find general reasoning from the level of political theory particularly unhelpful and borderline offensive in its arrogance, although I admit that’s probably unnecessarily antagonistic. This isn’t the government making a “health/pleasure tradeoff” involving food; it is a health tradeoff designed to alter an entire way of living for a neighborhood on which all too many blocks have nothing but fast food joints. I think it’s inevitable that some of the dollars that would have migrated to new fast food development in the area will migrate to the area’s other local restaurants and struggling bodegas, and that it serves as an effective subsidy to non-fast food proprietors who want to develop in South LA, which can only be a good thing.
    I’m not sure that any of the commenters have had the experience of watching a new redevelopment project go up in a poor area, try to attract tenants, and then get nothing but chain fast food restaurants put in place. In some ways, fast food restaurants have significant externalities, as well; a McDonalds or a Burger King creates a particular kind of urban feel that can actually help drive out other businesses.
    Will Jan Perry’s ban work? Who knows, but if there’s one thing I know for sure it’s that political science professor S. Lemieux (and certainly the far worse band of libertarian ideologues who have chosen to harp on this issue from 50,000 feet) has no realistic way to predict what will or won’t be an effective policy given the incredibly complex and second-order maze of zoning, property, land use, and restaurant regulation at issue in the city of Los Angeles. And the measure is nicely localized and temporary: if it has good effects, bad effects, or no effect we’ll be able to find out without making a decision that affects the city as a whole. As for myself, I’m glad that we’ve got a measure in place that will prevent the horrifying sight of yet another Burger King going up a few blocks away, and that may help to alter a set of bad practices and poor health in the neighborhood where I actually live.

  26. Mr. Nieporent–
    How about this: I’ll set up a clinic down the street from your house, with large signs advertising cut-rate D&Cs.

    Your property, your business.

  27. Mike says:

    I wonder how well that would go over with abortion clinics: the government isn’t banning abortion (privately) — just preventing anybody from selling them.
    I thought your buddies the Operation Rescue terrorists had already taken care of that.

  28. I thought your buddies the Operation Rescue terrorists had already taken care of that.
    Can you explain why you thought that, or why you thought they were “my buddies”?

  29. cer says:

    I think there are perfectly good reasons to think this measure is treating a symptom rather than a cause. It neither examines the reasons why fast food restaurants tend to locate in particular communities either in terms of broader economic/structural reasons that explain why so few options exist nor does it address why people in these communities might frequent them (that is not all lack of choice–anecdotally you can eat there for under $5/day and they’re some of the few places that serve breakfast.) Nor does it address the effects not just in terms of removing an affordable food option and removing a major–if most definitely suboptimal–employer in the area.
    The measure treats a symptom, not a cause.

  30. mattH says:

    To further your point Matt, trans-fats aren’t really being forced out, only reduced, knowledge or no. Notice it’s almost never “No trans-fats”, it’s 0g trans-fats, or in other words, less than a half a gram per serving. Considering that Canada has pushed it down to under 0.2g per serving as the allowable “none” mark, U.S. regulations are party a boon for industry
    It has been interesting that when I mention trans-fats, the most common response is a variant of “too bad they are so bad for you, but they are what make it taste so good”. This pretty much shows that most evaluations are processed through cultural filters first, in this case the American love/hate relationship with food, and the idea that science ans scientist are all about taking the fun out of things. Breaking people out of the cultural short-cuts takes more than calling something bad, and relying on a generalized sense of something can be twisted by those who want or need to.

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