All Commentary
Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Eating Right

Your freedom to choose your food is sacred

Food has always been political. Throughout history, armies have razed crops and demographics have shifted in response to hunger. Political correctness now drives the civics of food with bountiful nations attempting to dictate what people can eat and how much. Why? For their own good.

The public debate revolves around whether a particular food choice is healthy or not. The real debate is, “Who should choose: you or someone else?” The defense of food freedom needs to turn on the right of people to express themselves through dietary choices that reflect not only their preferences but also their judgment. Food is self-expression as much as music or literature is. If the government can control the flavors of life you choose to swallow, then it can control everything else.

Poe's law comes alive

Poe's law is an Internet adage. It says that without knowing the intent of an online poster, it is impossible to distinguish someone who is expressing an extreme position from someone else who is satirizing that extreme position. A recent news story blurs the line between parody and reality.

The parody goes by various names, including “Ordering a Pizza from Big Brother” and “Ordering a Pizza in 2015.” The gist: a pizza parlor with access to all of your personal information refuses to accept an order that is contraindicated by your finances, medical condition, or some other characteristic. The reality is expressed by a December 8 headline in the Telegraph that read, “The vending machine of the future is here, and it knows who you are.”

The Luce X2 Touch TV is the first commercial vending machine to use facial recognition technology to store data and interact with customers. The vending machines offer advantages to both buyers and sellers. A buyer could voluntarily store his preferences, and the machine could regularly restock those items. A seller could replace expensive employees and stores with machines. But the Telegraph points to possible disadvantages. Luce X2 “could refuse to vend a certain product based on a shopper’s age, medical record or dietary requirements.” Candy might be refused to the obese, sodas to schoolchildren. Since Luce X2 uses data-sharing cloud technology, going to another machine might not provide the anonymity that allows access.

The prospect of social control via vending machine sounds paranoid to some. But food regulations have become so intrusive and unreasonable as to become self-parodies. Michelle Obama's unpopular school-lunch program has children across America tossing trays full of untouched food into extremely well-nourished wastebaskets. Recent menu-labeling laws require food vendors — from restaurants to theater popcorn stands — to provide information on calorie contents that next to no one will read. But the requirement does make fast food more expensive and so discourages its consumption, which may be the laws’ real purpose.

Even as food regulation verges on the absurd, many acquiesce on health grounds. Framing the issue as medical gives the government a strong advantage.

Food is much more than a health matter

The State uses two basic arguments to justify the micromanagement of what people eat. First, laws are necessary to force people to make healthy choices. This argument assumes that politically motivated bureaucrats know what is best for people better than they do themselves. Second, people's unhealthy choices make them tax burdens on the socialized medical system. Having “relieved” or deprived people of the responsibility for their own medical maintenance, the State uses their dependence as an excuse to impose social control. It is important to counter both arguments, but doing so often ignores an equally essential point.

Food is not merely a matter of health or sustaining life. It is one of the main ways people express themselves in terms of culture, ethnicity, religion, psychology, family history, and pure preference. Food choices are personal; they define our identity as surely as choices in attire or music do.

Food is an integral aspect of transmitting culture and ethnicity. From Hungarian goulash to Italian sausage, from Indian curries to falafels, food expresses a family’s rich heritage. Recipes and cooking techniques are passed down from one generation to the next in an act that preserves the family bond; it preserves the culture itself.

Food is also a cultural ambassador through which diverse groups appreciate each other's ethnicity. People who would never listen to Chinese music are able to mention dozens of their favorite Chinese dishes. A man who would never learn Spanish might cook pescado a la talla with the same ingredients a woman is using in Acapulco. A couple will return from visiting Germany and rave about its spaetzle and knackwurst. This cultural appreciation occurs naturally, without tax funding or government-mandated tolerance. Indeed, laws interrupt people's appreciation of other cuisines.

Food can be a moral choice, as vegetarians and vegans know. It can be a part of religious doctrine, as any Orthodox Jew will tell you. It is a matter of ritual, as those who carve a turkey each Christmas or children who gather Halloween candy will gladly acknowledge. Food can even be a political statement, as those who prefer raw milk will attest.

As a psychological matter, food has been called “love.” A mother makes her son's favorite meal or a cake to celebrate his birthday. A lover proposes marriage over a romantic dinner and a good wine. Women recover from a broken heart by emptying containers of ice cream. When a neighbor expresses sympathy for a death in someone's family, she brings over a homemade casserole. At the funeral, there is a spread of food. At festivals, it is featured; for the Super Bowl, it is strategically placed between the couch and the TV.


The diversity of plentiful food that every grocery store boasts should be a cause of pride, because it demonstrates not only financial prosperity, but also cultural richness. It showcases the range of choices in our affluent society.

Never mind that subsidies, taxes, and regulations already distort what we find at the supermarket and how much we pay for it. When government tries to dictate what we may eat or the manner in which we eat, it is tampering with our heritage, our ethnicity, our psychology, and our religious or political choices. The ability to control the food you put in your mouth is as fundamental a right as to control the words that come out of it.

The government's increasing interference in food choice is often viewed as benevolent, because it is discussed in terms of health benefits. Food regulation is anything but benevolent. The government is not only trying to define who and what you are; it is, at the same time, trying to convince you that the denial of freedom is “for your own good.” If you are what you eat, then food laws are an attempt to control your identity.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.