Fast Food and Personal Responsibility

Liberty and Responsibility Are Inseparable

Ninos Malek teaches economics at San Jose State University, De Anza College, and Valley Christian High School.

By now everyone knows that the fast-food chains are being sued because they allegedly contribute to obesity. On Fox’s “Hannity and Colmes” program last July, Samuel Hirsch, the attorney who filed lawsuits against McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and KFC on behalf of his client who blames them for his poor health, admitted that the restaurants are not completely to blame. But he added that their failure to post warnings about nutrition content and their sophisticated marketing strategies make them partly culpable.

Hirsch’s claim that nutrition information is not available is false. Every one of these companies has its nutrition information available on its website, and I have seen nutrition-content posters at several fast-food establishments. But even if the restaurant provided no information, it is easy enough to learn from books, the Internet, television, and radio that certain foods can promote heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. To hear Hirsch tell it, “working” parents must be stupid because they don’t know what they are buying. With his use of the term “working” he was setting himself up as the champion of the “common man.”

The ridiculous claim that corporations are responsible for people’s health problems is nothing new. Remember the lawsuits against the tobacco companies? If you smoke let me ask you this: did an employee from one of the tobacco companies put a gun to your head and make you smoke a cigarette? I didn’t think so. People who are dying because of smoking-related illnesses have nobody to blame but themselves. And it’s the same for people who eat poorly. I have never seen Ronald McDonald with an M-16 forcing people to buy Big Macs. A person has to drive to McDonald’s, order a Big Mac, and eat it on his own.

The lack of personal responsibility has even my high school students blaming their poor diets on the school cafeteria. Granted, our cafeteria sells burritos and pizza, but they also sell salads and other healthy food. And if that weren’t good enough, I would tell them to wake up earlier and make their own healthy lunches. But that would involve a cost—waking up earlier. So I tell them to stop complaining and that they need to understand a simple economic concept—actions are what count. Obviously the benefit of eating their “bad” lunches outweighs the cost of waking up earlier or taking the time to make their lunches the night before. Eating unhealthy lunches is their choice.

Will ice cream companies be next? What about candy companies? And, God forbid, Starbucks! Caffeine may be bad for us, right? And all that whipped cream and caramel syrup in those Frappuccinos can’t be good for us.

Thomas DiLorenzo and James T. Bennett in their book From Pathology to Politics: Public Health in America (2000) correctly predicted this absurd litigation. Their book also points out that many public-health “experts” are not so concerned about health as they are about politics and their social agenda, which means more government control over our lives. Even before lawyer Hirsch came on the scene, there were those who advocated “fat taxes.” Not flat taxes, as supported by supply-side economists, but a tax on fat. In other words, foods that are considered “bad” will be taxed and foods that are considered “good” will be subsidized.

It’s Your Life

Look, I am a “health nut” myself. I do not eat fast food (maybe once in a while), and I do not smoke cigarettes. I make a choice to eat that Subway sandwich with no cheese and no mayonnaise, rather than that juicy hamburger or large fries. I make the choice to go to the gym and lift weights and run. Get the picture? It’s called personal responsibility. Those notorious restaurants exist because consumers want them to exist. While I may think smokers and people who live on fast food (like many of my friends) are unwise, it’s their lives. They have to weigh their own costs and benefits. No company is forcing them to do anything.

At the end of the “Hannity and Colmes” show, both conservative Sean Hannity and “liberal” law professor and guest-host Susan Estrich agreed that it is up to the person to choose what to eat. They both laughed at Hirsch, who responded by saying, “In five to ten years you won’t be laughing.”

I think he’s right. Unfortunately, I believe the laws will be changed to “protect” people from these evil companies. I tell my students that in ten years Starbucks will have bouncers at their door checking for IDs (and eventually Starbucks will be shut down because caffeine will be illegal). No more Jolt Cola or Mountain Dew for you high school students either unless you are 18. And cigars and cigarettes? I think we will see a new Prohibition on tobacco. The public-health movement will have a role in this socialist plot. As DiLorenzo and Bennett write in their book:

The denial of individual responsibility for one’s own life and well-being has become the keystone of the public health movement. For if individuals are responsible for their own health, who needs the “public” health establishment’s political agenda? The very word “public” in this regard is a euphemism for “socialized.” And once our health is socialized, then all behavior becomes the “legitimate” province of state control and regulation. But once it is agreed that the state has a “right” to control any and all behavior that might possibly have a negative effect on “public” health, then we are on the road to losing all of our privacy and our freedom.

Milton Friedman made the simple statement in his “Free to Choose” television series that a voluntary exchange will not take place unless both parties believe they will benefit. Every time you buy cigarettes or unhealthy food, and every time you do not buy food that’s good for you, you are weighing your own costs and benefits. I give credit to those who keep quiet about personal health risks. It’s the whiners and people who cannot accept responsibility that are irritating. As F. A. Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty: “Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.”