NYC's creeping nanny state

Steven M. Warshawsky
On Tuesday, the New York City Board of Health voted unanimously to ban the use of artificial trans fats by New York City restaurants and bakeries.  Restaurants have until July 2007 to switch to trans fat free oils, and bakeries have until July 2008.  The reason for the ban is simple:  Trans fats are unhealthy.  As New York City's Nanny-in-Chief, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said:  "We are trying to make food safer."

I seriously doubt that the trans fat ban will have any appreciable effect on the health of New York City residents.  After all, the ban does not (yet) apply to other "unhealthy" food products, like sugar, butter, fatty meat, refined flour, etc.  Nor does the ban prohibit New Yorkers from eating too much or exercising too little. Nevertheless, presumably, the ban will have some net positive health effects.

The economic effects of the ban are difficult to calculate in practice, but easy to predict in principle:  The prices of goods that formerly used oils containing trans fat will go up, due to the higher price of substitute, non-trans fat oils.  Alternatively, even if the substitute oils do not cost any more to produce or use, they likely will produce foods that do not taste as good (that's why trans fats are used in the first place), and so sales will fall.  As a result, many restaurants and bakeries will experience a drop in income, and some number of them will go out of business.  Of course, this will lead to unemployment, which is associated with a host of negative personal and social consequences (including poorer health).  (It also is easy to predict that the economic impact of the trans fat ban will fall most heavily on businesses disproportionately owned and frequented by working class people and minorities.)

Whether the harmful economic consequences of the ban will be outweighed by the hoped-for improvements in the health of New York City residents probably cannot be calculated with any reasonable degree of certainty, although I am deeply skeptical. 

What we do know for certain, however, is that the ban represents another step in the slow, but steady, erosion of personal liberty in American life.  While the ban "only" affects 8 million New Yorkers, and millions of annual visitors to the city, New York City, like California, is on the leading edge of contemporary liberalism.  Other parts of the country are sure to follow NYC's lead in banning "unhealthy" food products (as they have with the smoking ban imposed in NYC restaurants and bars two years ago, which was recently adopted in New Jersey).       

Get used to much, much more of this.  The logic of contemporary liberalism leads, ineluctably, to the nanny state.  Under liberalism, the primary role of government is to promote the "general welfare," not ensure the conditions of liberty.  Almost by definition, this means that our political leaders, and their bureaucratic and technocratic apparatchiks, will decide how the rest of us should live, and how the various cost-benefit problems that confront us everyday should be weighed and resolved.  This starts, for example, with home and workplace safety regulations, then leads to consumer product protections, and ends up regulating what we put into our mouths.

Significantly, New York City has not outlawed the individual consumption of trans fats, and probably will never flatly outlaw smoking.  Such a consumer-based regulatory approach would be impossible to enforce and would result in widespread evasion and resistance.  Instead, the government shapes all of our lives through its tyrannical control over businesses, which are relatively few in number and easily subjected to the state's coercive authority.  As one New York City restaurant owner put it:  "Why is the city telling me what my customers can eat?  But the city is the one carrying the guns, so what can I do?"

Once again, we see that economic liberty is the root of personal liberty.  Once we cede to government the right to comprehensively control what businesses can and cannot do -- which the American political and legal systems have done since the New Deal era -- then there are very few limits to what ambitious legislators can do in the name of promoting the "general welfare."

Contact Steven M. Warshawsky

On Tuesday, the New York City Board of Health voted unanimously to ban the use of artificial trans fats by New York City restaurants and bakeries.  Restaurants have until July 2007 to switch to trans fat free oils, and bakeries have until July 2008.  The reason for the ban is simple:  Trans fats are unhealthy.  As New York City's Nanny-in-Chief, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said:  "We are trying to make food safer."

I seriously doubt that the trans fat ban will have any appreciable effect on the health of New York City residents.  After all, the ban does not (yet) apply to other "unhealthy" food products, like sugar, butter, fatty meat, refined flour, etc.  Nor does the ban prohibit New Yorkers from eating too much or exercising too little. Nevertheless, presumably, the ban will have some net positive health effects.

The economic effects of the ban are difficult to calculate in practice, but easy to predict in principle:  The prices of goods that formerly used oils containing trans fat will go up, due to the higher price of substitute, non-trans fat oils.  Alternatively, even if the substitute oils do not cost any more to produce or use, they likely will produce foods that do not taste as good (that's why trans fats are used in the first place), and so sales will fall.  As a result, many restaurants and bakeries will experience a drop in income, and some number of them will go out of business.  Of course, this will lead to unemployment, which is associated with a host of negative personal and social consequences (including poorer health).  (It also is easy to predict that the economic impact of the trans fat ban will fall most heavily on businesses disproportionately owned and frequented by working class people and minorities.)

Whether the harmful economic consequences of the ban will be outweighed by the hoped-for improvements in the health of New York City residents probably cannot be calculated with any reasonable degree of certainty, although I am deeply skeptical. 

What we do know for certain, however, is that the ban represents another step in the slow, but steady, erosion of personal liberty in American life.  While the ban "only" affects 8 million New Yorkers, and millions of annual visitors to the city, New York City, like California, is on the leading edge of contemporary liberalism.  Other parts of the country are sure to follow NYC's lead in banning "unhealthy" food products (as they have with the smoking ban imposed in NYC restaurants and bars two years ago, which was recently adopted in New Jersey).       

Get used to much, much more of this.  The logic of contemporary liberalism leads, ineluctably, to the nanny state.  Under liberalism, the primary role of government is to promote the "general welfare," not ensure the conditions of liberty.  Almost by definition, this means that our political leaders, and their bureaucratic and technocratic apparatchiks, will decide how the rest of us should live, and how the various cost-benefit problems that confront us everyday should be weighed and resolved.  This starts, for example, with home and workplace safety regulations, then leads to consumer product protections, and ends up regulating what we put into our mouths.

Significantly, New York City has not outlawed the individual consumption of trans fats, and probably will never flatly outlaw smoking.  Such a consumer-based regulatory approach would be impossible to enforce and would result in widespread evasion and resistance.  Instead, the government shapes all of our lives through its tyrannical control over businesses, which are relatively few in number and easily subjected to the state's coercive authority.  As one New York City restaurant owner put it:  "Why is the city telling me what my customers can eat?  But the city is the one carrying the guns, so what can I do?"

Once again, we see that economic liberty is the root of personal liberty.  Once we cede to government the right to comprehensively control what businesses can and cannot do -- which the American political and legal systems have done since the New Deal era -- then there are very few limits to what ambitious legislators can do in the name of promoting the "general welfare."

Contact Steven M. Warshawsky