≡ Menu

The Big Deal

In an earlier post, I challenged readers to discuss the trans-fat ban by Montgomery County. Should we fight it? Challenge it? Or just assume it’s no big deal, a reaction I heard from a number of friends. Their attitude was come on, don’t get worked about it. There are lots of substitutes for trans-fats. So what’s the big deal. And some of our readers made the point that when you get worked up over trans-fats, most people will assume you’re a nut. And that reduces your chance to have them take other, more important ideas seriously. You’ll be dismissed, and maybe rightly so.

I want to thank all of the readers who contributed to the excellent discussion in the comments to that post.

Here, I’ll give my two cents. Or four.

Going without trans-fats is no big deal. But a ban by the Montgomery County Council is a big deal and this paradox is why the politics and strategic aspect of the issue is so tricky.

I don’t smoke. Never have. So a ban on smoking, in public or private places, is if anything, good for me. I don’t like second-hand smoke.

I wear my seat belt when I ride in my car. Requiring people to wear seat belts doesn’t affect me. I won’t be getting a ticket any time soon.

I’ve been on a motorcycle once in my life. It scared me. So I don’t care if people riding a motorcycle have to wear a helmet. If anything, the requirement supposedly keeps my taxes down.

I don’t really care about the mouth-feel of pastry or whether it’s a little more expensive. Using trans-fats supposedly leads to better mouth feel and a longer shelf life. Come on, would you go to the barricades over mouth feel?

Nope. Not worth it. None of these things are really worth fighting for, are they? Are you going to picket a politician for making some other folks stop smoking or wear their seat belt? Not worth it.

Of course, that’s how the nanny state grows. It’s just not worth fighting any one infringement of liberty. So no, I’m not going to fight for the right to buy a locally-baked pastry with good mouth feel.

But I will fight against the idea that the Montgomery County Council has the right to ban trans-fats. That’s why I’m writing this post. That’s why I mention it to my neighbors. It requires a bit of schizophrenia. But it’s healthy. I don’t care about trans-fats, but I care about the ban. I care about the principle.

The principle is tricky. It’s not the right to eat trans-fats. The principle is that I don’t want powerful people to decide what I do with my body or my life. Those are my responsibility. They are my responsibility because that’s what adulthood is. Adulthood is being responsible for the risks you take, reaping the rewards and enduring the costs.

But those decisions are also my responsibility because I have a lot of incentives to make the right choice. I bear the costs and reap the rewards, remember? I admit I’m imperfect. I’m frail. I’m weak. I don’t always make the right choice. Sometimes I eat too much. Sometimes I drink too much. And I suspect my neighbors make mistakes even when I don’t. So I understand the appeal of being constrained. That’s what friends are for, or rabbis or even self-help books. Those are the sources I want to get my constraints from.

I don’t want to live in a world where a bunch of strangers sitting on the Montgomery County Council act in my name to constrain us. Those strangers don’t love me. They don’t care about me (though they protest that yes, they do.) They are responsive to all kinds of forces besides my well-being. So I don’t want to expand their authority to make decisions for me. I want to reduce it.

So when your friend laughs at you for caring about something as trivial as trans fats, tell your friend you don’t care about trans fat. You care about the principle that’s at stake. The principle is that when your health is a justification for restricting liberty, then the power of politics climbs in your car, in your kitchen and in your bedroom.  Today it’s trans fats. Tomorrow it’s meat or single-malt scotch, or skiing or sex. It’s not about whether some cost-benefit analysis proves that on this particular case or that one, the ban is worthwhile. It’s about whether you’re free to be an adult and pursue what you enjoy, knowing that nothing is entirely safe. I choose adulthood for adults.

Chapter Three of The Invisible Heart deals with these issues.

Here’s an essay I wrote on obesity as a justification for regulation.


Next post:

Previous post: