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Friday, December 15, 2006

Trans-Fattened Government

So people dining out in New York City will be protected from unwittingly — or even wittingly — consuming foods containing trans fats. Trans fats are what you get with partially hydrogenated oils and shortenings, which keep foods like French fries from getting soggy and margarine solid at room temperature.

Trans fats will be banned in the city’s restaurants and undoubtedly before long in Chicago and other places because health authorities say they raise cholesterol and cause heart disease.

Ironically, trans fats became popular in food preparation as people were being scared away from the saturated fats in butter and lard. I’m beginning to think the diet authorities, who unfortunately are close to government power, aren’t as sure about things as they claim. (This is worth reading.) They told us (on the basis of evidence that has been questioned in many quarters) that saturated fats are bad for our health. So we turned to polyunsaturated and trans fats, only to be told later that they aren’t so great either. This sounds familiar. Oh yes. Heroin was developed to help people break their morphine habits. Then methadone had to be invented to break the heroin habit. Now I read that kids are using methadone for kicks. We’d probably prefer they consumed trans fat.

I don’t know what, if anything, trans fats will do to you. I am not a physician or a nutritionist. Maybe they are as bad as the most vocal health experts say. But I want to point out two things before moving on to the political implications. First, there is some reason for skepticism about the indictment of saturated fat. (This article is illuminating about the political roots of government diet recommendations.) And second, former Cato analyst Radley Balko points out that as consumption of trans fats has increased over the last two decades, heart disease has decreased and life-expectancy has lengthened. What are we to make of that?

Why a Ban?

Whatever the truth is, this is shouldn’t be a political issue. People are perfectly capable of keeping up with the latest dizzying news on what’s good for you and what’s not without the government banning things. Earlier generations of Americans would have been appalled by New York City’s action. But now many people think nothing of demanding prohibition of anything they dislike. And most of the others accept it.

It’s as though the process of prohibition meant nothing. But it means a great deal. Let’s assume we won’t miss trans fats and that healthy substitutes will be easily found and cheap to use. So what? Prohibition is objectionable in itself. If government has the power to ban trans fats in the name of health (an example of what Thomas Szasz calls the Therapeutic State), it will necessarily have the power to prohibit — or, yes, require — other things in the name of health. Power won’t be contained, and sooner or later it will wash over something the trans-fat opponents don’t like.

Why is government looking after our health? To keep the price of medical care down, perhaps. But that’s only a concern of government because it pays for a lot medical care (using our money of course). And many people want it (that is, the taxpayers) to pay for it all. When government first intervened in medical matters, we were assured it would not interfere with our lives. Many people believed that story. Now we know better. With the government’s medical budgets running wild and its programs facing bankruptcy, control of our decisions has become a matter of fiscal conservatism. The scary thing is that people seem willing to give up freedom to preserve and extend the subsidies. The choice is between government responsibility for medical services or freedom to make decisions. In the long run we can’t have both.

We have to drop the idea that if government doesn’t protect us from things like trans fats, we are defenseless. Have you read a food label lately? Virtually every product boasts it has no trans fats. Private activities are educating the public (assuming the science is right), and profit-seeking food companies are responding. A margarine company, Smart Balance, has been touting its trans-fat-free product for years. Restaurants would do the same. In the meantime, concerned customers can ask questions or avoid situations of uncertainty.

Yes, that means some inconvenience. But it’ll be a lot less inconvenient than the impositions of the Therapeutic State.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.