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Wednesday, December 1, 1999

The Food & Drink Police: America’s Nannies, Busybodies and Petty Tyrants

A Splendid Counterattack Against Busybodies Who Want to Dictate What You Eat and Drink

Threats to the freedom of Americans to make their own choices and run their own lives are proliferating as fast as mushrooms after a heavy summer rain. Some have already grown to huge, Alice-in-Wonderland proportions (like the IRS), while many others are just sprouting. In the latter category is the threat to our freedom to choose what to consume. Prohibition is gone, but prohibitionists lurk among us. This new book from Bennett and DiLorenzo is about them—America’s nannies, busybodies, and petty tyrants, as their subtitle says.

We have always had nags and scolds. In a free society, people are entitled to use their liberty in peaceful ways of their choosing and that includes hectoring other people about their choices. Putting up with them, listening if we desire or ignoring them when we would rather be left alone, is one of freedom’s tradeoffs. (In fact, there are probably people who regard us as nags and scolds, always telling them not to support Social Security, minimum-wage laws, trade restrictions, and so forth.) The trouble begins when they start turning to the coercive power of the state to impose their desires and values on others. Bennett and DiLorenzo introduce us to a host of individuals and organizations that want to tell you what to eat and drink, and have no compunction about employing the power of the state to make you behave.

One of the chief villains of the book is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The authors paid a visit to the Washington office of CSPI, where “Scarecrows scurried here and there, grimly clutching faxes and fact sheets that no doubt proved or at least asserted with the basso voice of pseudo-scientific surety that whatever you are eating at this very moment will kill you.” That would not bother me (or the authors) except that the CSPI folks are not content just to warn about overindulging in crème brûlée. They scowl at virtually everything tastier than a plate of rice and lentils and want to make certain that you don’t push that aside in favor of the crème brûlé. “The Center’s agenda,” write the authors, “is harsh neo-Puritanism. Ban, restrict, end, and regulate are common admonitions in CSPI’s publications.”

Another malefactor is Jeremy Rifkin, a former left-wing activist turned food nanny. Progress of all kinds worries Rifkin, but progress in food leaves him especially queasy. The bioengineering of food to make plants more beneficial to humans is something that we have been doing on a hit-or-miss basis for thousands of years, but now that science has figured out how to deliberately alter the genetic makeup of a plant to add or subtract just the right trait, Rifkin and cohorts go berserk. His weapon of choice is the lawsuit. If someone wants to experiment with, say, genetically altered strawberries that are supposed to be more frost-resistant, he can count on Rifkin to seek an injunction on the grounds that some vague federal statute has not been fully complied with. That tactic has slowed progress in food production that would benefit everyone, but poorer people the most. Busybodies don’t care much about the consequences of their actions, however.

Freedom of speech is something the food and drink police care about just about as much as they care for a dish of Häagen-Dazs with hot fudge. Because the Supreme Court has ruled that “commercial speech” falls mostly outside the First Amendment, the nannies are constantly running off to the bureaucrats and courts to strike down advertising or labeling that bothers them. Our neo-prohibitionists and the regulators at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have conspired, for example, to prohibit the sellers of alcoholic beverages from so much as hinting that there is scientific evidence that moderate amounts of alcohol can be good for people. The authors also relate zany battles over the naming of products, such as Crazy Horse Malt Liquor.

The book is written with a great deal of humor and sarcasm, but make no mistake Bennett and DiLorenzo are deadly serious in alerting Americans to the growing menace of regulation of our eating choices. They write, “There is much more at stake here than how much tax one will pay on one’s twinkies, how many beers one may consume at Pizza Hut after a softball game, or the character of Budweiser ads. What is at issue is how much personal responsibility Americans should assume for their own behavior, and consequently, how much personal freedom they will enjoy.”

Precisely. Congratulations to the authors for this splendid counterattack against all those busybodies who want to dictate what you eat and drink.