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December 11, 2006

Libertarians

They really are different from us.

Update: Along similar lines, I think Julian's perspective on trans fats is interesting. When I survey the situation, it looks to me that labeling will have the effect of entirely eliminating trans fats from the diets of nearly all economically secure and relatively educated Americans. As for the economically insecure, who lack fresh food choices, or don't know what trans fats are, or have a sharply limited number of dining options in their immediate area, or don't read English proficiently -- well, they'll still be ingesting the stuff.

So while I'm sympathetic to his arguments about freedom and its (admittedly) unpredictable consequences, I'm more concerned by the informational, educational, and economic inequities that would make a labeling regime amount to the de facto elimination of trans fats for some classes and not others, thus further accelerating the yawning health inequality in the country (and pace Wilkinson, the health inequality is bad because the poor are really, really unhealthy). Sadly, government policy is a blunt instrument, and I can't just ban trans fats in particular areas with particular socioeconomic characteristics. Therefore, I'm willing to kill the stuff altogether -- the market failures and informational asymmetries that I see as afflicting the bottom of the income/educational distribution outweigh the possible benefits of letting the market take care of it for the middle/top of the scale.

December 11, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

I'm sure that dignity, self-respect and integrity are quite nutritious when you can't afford to feed your kids anything else.

Posted by: SP | Dec 11, 2006 5:11:34 PM

Insurance is theft!

Well, I guess it's a concept.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Dec 11, 2006 5:19:54 PM

They made a slip-of-the-mind error in the title of that post:

Why Rawls Cato/Libertarianism Is Devoid of Moral Perspective.

The text fully makes the case on why the corrected version is accurate.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Dec 11, 2006 5:21:58 PM

They really are different from us.

That's a good way of putting it, at least in this case (but not all--Will is defending Rawls). Rawls' arguments depend on shared moral intuitions, and not everyone shares them. It's just as rational, at least as far as Rawls' arguments can show us, to prefer a form of justice based on property rights as one based on distribution. You just reject a couple of Rawls' assumptions and there isn't much more Rawls can say.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 11, 2006 5:33:01 PM

"When I survey the situation, it looks to me that labeling will have the effect of entirely eliminating trans fats from the diets of nearly all economically secure and relatively educated Americans."

Where did you get this idea? It's just that deliberately incorrect labelling will spread. From NYT (via Americablog): "Cutbacks in staff and budgets have reduced the number of food-safety inspections conducted by the F.D.A. to about 3,400 a year - from 35,000 in the 1970s."
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/11/opinion/11schlosser.html

Whgo would invest millions in new products if the risk of being 'punished' with ridiculously low fines is so slim???

Posted by: Gray | Dec 11, 2006 6:24:03 PM

Sadly, government policy is a blunt instrument, and I can't just ban trans fats in particular areas with particular socioeconomic characteristics. Therefore, I'm willing to kill the stuff altogether -- the market failures and informational asymmetries that I see as afflicting the bottom of the income/educational distribution outweigh the possible benefits of letting the market take care of it for the middle/top of the scale.

Yes. This exactly.

Ban that shite right now. And stop subsidizing all the other shite (high-fructose corn syrup, anyone?) that winds up in so many American foodstuffs, making them attractively cheap and that much more unhealthy for the segment of society who can least afford to take health risks every time they eat a meal and who, thanks to a) pervasive marketing and b) the evident lack of nutrition education in schools, are least prepared to know the difference between a good fat and a bad one.

Posted by: litbrit | Dec 11, 2006 7:17:10 PM

The government has been regulating food safety and adulteration since 1905. The health sciences have proved the case on transfats, some companies have already started the feel-good elimination of them from their best selling items (Crisco, Oreos) so stepping up and banning them from restaurants is a logical progression as it speeds up a process that has already started. Prices will stabilize at a lower rate as it becomes industry norm.

Posted by: Hawise | Dec 11, 2006 7:27:11 PM

The government has been regulating food safety and adulteration since 1905.

But in general, the US government lags behind other industrialized nations when it comes to protecting its populace from harmful chemicals and additives.

As the European Union and other nations have tightened their environmental standards, mostly in the last two years, manufacturers — here and around the world — are selling goods to American consumers that fail to meet other nations' stringent laws for toxic chemicals.

Wood, toys, electronics, pesticides and cosmetics are among U.S. products that contain substances that are banned or restricted elsewhere, particularly in Europe and Japan, because they may raise the risk of cancer, alter hormones or cause reproductive or neurological damage.

Michael Wilson, a professor at UC Berkeley's Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, said the United States is becoming a "dumping ground" for consumer goods that are unwanted and illegal in much of the world. Wilson warned earlier this year in a report commissioned by the California Legislature that "the United States has fallen behind globally in the move toward cleaner technologies."

The European Union, driven by consumers' concerns, has banned or heavily restricted hundreds of toxic substances in recent years, invoking its "precautionary principle," which is codified into law and prescribes that protective steps should be taken when there is scientific evidence of risks to public health or the environment.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies have relied on voluntary steps from industries rather than regulations, saying the threats posed by low levels of chemicals are too uncertain to eliminate products valuable to consumers or businesses.

[...]

The EPA hasn't eliminated any industrial compounds since it sought unsuccessfully to ban asbestos 18 years ago. Unlike EU policies, U.S. law requires the EPA to prove a toxic substance "presents an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment," consider the costs of restricting its use and choose "the least burdensome" approach to regulate industry.

Posted by: litbrit | Dec 11, 2006 8:02:22 PM

I just said that the laws have been around for a hundred years and so the new nanny state idea is bunk. The fact that laws exist does not mean that the government is any good at enforcing them.

Posted by: Hawise | Dec 11, 2006 9:50:45 PM

The labeling process set off a frenzy of research in the food industry to try to find good alternatives. Once those alternatives are developed, competition will drive down the price so that even low income diets should have little or no trans fats, since it would be more expensive to have two lines of food, one with and one without.

But research takes time. It's more expensive to rush this process, and we haven't yet seen how it will work on its own, so I think this is hasty. It's fun to think that these evil corporations have the technology to instantly replace trans fats at zero cost (monetary, or in terms of quality, crispness, mouth feel, etc.), and it's only their evil plot and lack of government intervention that allows trans fats to still be used. But fun as it is to demonize corporations, we have no evidence to back up these speculations.

I don't see why we'd end up with two tiers on trans fat foods. Once the research is done and the products are reformulated, they'll want to sell them to as wide an audience as possible.

Posted by: Ann | Dec 12, 2006 7:40:46 AM

apparently Hawise has never read The Jungle, but then that's keeping in the nature libertiarian thought

Posted by: akaison | Dec 12, 2006 10:31:06 AM

I've heard the "distributing goods, etc. is unjust to those on the receiving end" argument before. It's especially ironic when it comes from Bible-thumpers, rather than secular Cato-tarians, is it often does: considering that the book of Leviticus they like to thump so much when it comes to teh hot gay sex is all about creating a redistributive system in which the landless, hence resourceless, tribe of Levi, as well as widows, orphans, etc., are to be given resources tithed by everyone else, not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of (religious, and in a theocracy hence secular) law! Are the Bible-thumpers really arguing that Levitical morality turns priests, widows and orphans into thieves?

Posted by: DAS | Dec 12, 2006 11:20:42 AM

Ann,

It seems to me that lots of food consumption is regional and class-based. The idea is not that a potato chip company would sell 2 versions of all their products at two price points across the country. More likely they would switch over all their production facilities in the health concious north-west. Then perhaps only their bagel chips and trail mix get switched nation-wide, and then in the middle of the midwest and south, they might leave things alone.

Even if I came up with a same-cost transfat-free identical-tasting product, chances are I have to do something to implement that, which would cost money. Doing nothing is the default. Manufacturing lines are not changed for no reason (ie, in the absence of demand).

Finally, an absence of demand does mean that the market does not value that thing, but it does *not* mean that the market is *right* to not value that thing. Most people aren't making informed compromises between cost and taste and heathy diet when they shop, because most people are not the educated, well-to-do type of person who pays attention to those things.

Furthermore, consumers have a lot of factors to consider when making a purchase, and a limited number of options. So even if someone cared about transfat, they might care more about things totally unrelated to transfat and therefore not be able to effect the market in regard to transfat through their purchase.

But perhaps most relevant is this anecdote. A friend of mine was in finance at a major chip company, and he spent a a lot of time determining how much space to buy on the grocery stores shelves to maximize the impulse purchases of consumers. The more chips they walked past, the more likely they were to pick up a bag, simply on impulse.

There's no reason I know of that a ban on transfats would have to happen over night, or that it would have to be an outright ban, etc. It could be set to start 4 years in the future. It could be set so that transfat can't exceed a certain % of total fat. etc, etc. Many criticisms on the basis of these notions are a strawman of "worst case" design, and not necessarily relevant.

The economy is an important part of our society. But markets are made from lots of individual decisions, and often time constraining the range of those individual decisions can result in a stronger economy over-all. Eliminating transfats may, in the long run, be better for the economy overall by reducing healthcare costs, as far as you or I know.

A real life example is that insurance companies don't offer much by way of discounts to consumers to build to code or make major changes to their houses to improve safety. They know that the home market is simply not structured in a way that permits the home buyer to influence the safety issue. Instead they lobby local governments to regulate building to the mutual benefit of home-owner and insurer. The home insurance market remains competitive, they home building market remains competitive, and overall people are safer in their homes because of the regulation.

Posted by: Chuck | Dec 12, 2006 12:57:32 PM

I had the good fortune to have Warren Buffett appear at my company's annual sales meeting last week, and in listening to him speak, when asked about his theories of how things should work, his answers aligned almost completely with Rawls's. If a guy with a $46 billion net worth thinks Rawls is the bee's knees, it might behoove Cato to listen a little.

Even better, when asked what three things he would do if he ran the country, his number one answer was to raise taxes on rich people, including a much higher estate tax.

Posted by: Phil | Dec 12, 2006 5:38:34 PM

isn't one of the first rules of business that one wants stability. In other words, given a choice between a higher tax market that's stable versus an unstable environment with a lower tax rate, wouldn't a business choose the more stable environment? Isn't the real problem w/ Libertarianism that it promotes instability.

Posted by: akaison | Dec 12, 2006 8:49:29 PM

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