Compulsive commenter that I am, I found myself today involving myself in a thread at Letters From A Tory regarding David Cameron’s latest announcement that his Tory government have no intention of going easy on the nannying. The position taken by LFAT seemed to me to be rather contradictory- on the one hand criticising Dave for pandering to Daily Mail readers… but the basically supporting state interventionism. So as I was preparing another comment, I remembered that I is a blogger, and thought a more thorough discussion was in order. So here it is.
One of the examples used in the LFAT thread was a state requirement for restaurants to display calorie counts on their menus. That seems innocuous enough. What’s wrong with it? As one commenter, Charles, said-
… I’ve spent the last few weeks in sunny SoCal, where this is mandatory and have found it extremely useful from a consumer’s perspective. By way of example, yesterday I had a choice of beef stew (680 kcals) or beef stew with mashed potato (1280 kcals)…I still went for the potatoes, but found it inspiring that I was able to make an informed choice. Finding a way to increase information to the consumer makes the market work better and seems to me a very reasonable approach for a conservative.
and LFAT himself said-
printing information on calories is not nannying in the slighest!! I’m not telling what you to eat, I’m not even encouraging you to eat certain foods, I’m simply giving you – the consumer – more information than you had before, which you are perfectly entitled to ignore.
Indeed, it’s reasonable enough. Isn’t it? Well, I don’t think so. As you might have guessed.
Firstly, let’s consider the most obvious objection. This regulation, like all regulations, is a burden on the businesses it regulates. Now you might say, it is not an onerous burden- the costs are bearable. But we free marketeers know that the pernicious nature of regulations is that it is not usually (though it sometimes is) one particular one that wipes many businesses out, but rather the cumulative total of them. Each regulation adds to costs, or damages productivity. As they pile up, weaker businesses, often the smaller, niche, businesses, that would have otherwised survived to benefit customers, fall by the wayside one by one. This leads to a further observation: the smaller businesses suffer at the expense of the larger ones. To a massive multinational burger corporation, the cost of paying laboratories to accurately count the calories of the small number of standardised products on their standardised menus is trivial. The cost to a small family restaurant is relatively enormous, and may be prohibitive. As we liberterians so often point out, big business often welcome regulation precisely because it wipes out those smaller competitors who may one day have stolen their market from them with better, cheaper products.
Now we may also note that once calorie counted menus are obligatory, a lot of spontaneity goes out the window. No more can the chef just whip up a special du jour. It isn’t officially calorie counted, is it? The restaurant can’t modify a dish to the individual customer’s requirements either, for the same reason. As with all state regulation, the diversity and colour of life is drained away, replaced with grim standardisation. A person may say, well, that’s worth it for the vital knowledge of how many calories are in my mashed potato, but we must remember that again this is a cumulative effect. Each regulation drains a little colour from life. Our culture dies a slow death of a thousand cuts.
But as we contemplate the miserable standardised world the state creates, let’s move on to the bigger issue, which is the assertion that this is neutral information. And to do that, I’ll use an example which may seem a trifle extreme, but is deliberately so as it illustrates the non-neutrality of information clearly.
Let us imagine that some awful thuggish government of the farleftright is elected. And let us imagine further that they pass a law stating that each person must wear a marker- a badge, or an armband- indicating their religious group; christian, muslim or jew, for instance. And they also require that homosexuals wear a badge also. And perhaps persons whose ancestry is not purely British must wear one too. And let us suppose (not unreasonably, if such laws have been passed) that this is in a political climate of discrimination against, say, muslims, jews, homosexuals and foreigners. Now, let us suppose that the last few straggling libertarians object, and say “this is not reasonable”. And the government replies, “it is just information. Information is always good. It helps people make judgements. This is simply more information for citizens”.
Now as I said, this is an extreme example- but it illustrates (I hope) that information is not neutral. Our imaginary farleftright government has required the divulgence of this information by citizens for quite specific reasons; in this case, it is to encourage discrimination. It has been done in the hope that muslims or jews or gays will suffer from their exposure. This is of course why badge wearing was implemented by the Nazis. It is not a question of whether other people seeing the badges were free to ignore them; the issue was that the badges made the wearers a target.
Okay, let’s calm down and think of something milder. Think back through your life and consider whether there’s anything you’d rather that other people didn’t know. Maybe some minor shoplifting as a child. Maybe that kinky thing you and your wife do. Maybe you smoked some dope at university. Maybe you like to surf for porn in the wee small hours. Suppose the government had all this information and released it in public. Again, we could say that this just information. But clearly it isn’t neutral. The non-neutrality of information is so well recognised that we make a specific crime of information abuse; we call it Blackmail.
Now it seems to me that many people who consider these types of regulation approach it from a somewhat naive point of view, taking the proposal (e.g. for calorised menus) at face value and thinking “is this a good thing, or a bad thing?” without contemplating the wider context. But it normally pays dividends in life to be a little cynical, so let us step back and ask, who are the people demanding these particular forms of information disclosure, and why this information in particular? One thing we need to consider is that the pressure is coming from progressive pressure groups, and that one way to sum up the Progressive Movement in a nutshell is that they are a coalition of cranks. Progressivism evolved in the nineteenth century out of a swirling maelstrom of social idealists; some religious, some secular, some attempting realistic reform and others entirely utopian. There were attempts at utopian communities, living a “better life”. And they tended to all settle on similar ideas; particularly the idea that the private person must be made anew, and as such they focussed on controlling the most personal of things, such as what a person eats, drinks or smokes, their sex lives and so on. Over time, these people settled on the “left” of the political spectrum; as George Orwell said in The Road To Wigan Pier-
In addition to this there is the horrible–the really disquieting–prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.
In other words, these were lifestyle cranks, the primitive ancestors of the whole green/organic/food faddism axis that so plagues us now. Since Orwell wrote that paragraph, they have been immensely successful. Many of their ideas are now mainstream. The alcohol, tobacco and food temperance movements are now part of the received wisdom and, when we find politicians saying that something must be done about beer, or trans-fats, or the terrible obesity crisis, these are the views they are reflecting.
One thing that the progressivist network has become terribly good at is the insinuation of memes and terminology into the mainstream, without attribution. That is, we all use terms like “binge drinking”, “junk food”, “SUV” and so on without realising where we picked them up from. Take “binge drinking”. A binge, until recently, meant waking up with three days missing, mysterious bruises, and your shoes missing, a hundred miles from home. Now it means “drinking more than five units”. Hands up everyone who knows how that happened.
Hmm, can’t see many hands up there. Well, the term was coined by Henry Wechsler, a sad little man at Nanny State Central- Harvard Medical School- who spent years trying to talk up a moral panic about students drinking (students? Drinking? Lawks!) who tapped into the big money from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a heavily temperance orientated body with serious billions to splash around and thus got his terminology picked up by the transnational medical bureaucracy and its associated nebula of pressure groups. And hey presto, suddenly we’re all binge drinkers!
Let’s try another one. Junk food. Where’d that come from? The answer is, it was coined by The Centre For Science In The Public Interest, a spinoff from the Ralph Nader pressure group empire which originated (as so many groups did) as an anti-nuclear group before finding its true calling as an anti-tasty food group under its skeletal vegan imperious leader Michael Jacobsen. The CSPI is a big group. They are very well funded and organised. They coined such memorable public consciousness terms as “empty calorie” and “heart attack on a plate”. They are fiercely anti-alcohol. They almost single handedly organised the campaign against trans-fats. They are the modern inheritors of that long progressive tradition of food cranks that Orwell was disparaging above. And, quelle surprise, they are major instigators of the “calorie counts on menus” idea.
So our cynicism has helped us trace the salmon back to its spawning ground. We have a group of fanatics who are vegetarian, anti-fats, anti-meat, anti-coffee(!), anti-alcohol, anti-pretty much anything enjoyable, and they’re demanding calorie counted menus. Clearly, they have some kind of agenda here. Can we guess what it is?
Well obviously, the whole point of the calorie counted menu is that it is not neutral information. Just as our farleftright government are making available the information of who is a jew, or a homosexual, in order to encourage discrimination, likewise our food
fascist faddist campaigners are demanding that this information be available in the hope that people will discriminate against the statutorily exposed purveyors of their hated energy dense foods. So, it’s a two pronged attack; firstly, keeping up a constant propaganda war against foods, then secondly using the calorie marking to discourage purchase of those foods in the marketplace.
So in fact what we see here isn’t some innocent provision of information to consumers. Rather, it is one prong of the progressive/temperance movement’s perpetual attack-
- Propaganda and organised statistics are used to create the impression of a crisis (binge drinking, secondhand smoke, obesity).
- The crisis is blamed on businesses selling a product (brewers, big tobacco, “junk” food corporations).
- The businesses are obligated to participate in actively discouraging use of their products via regulations, self harming labelling being the first step (tobacco is the model, same now being done to beer and food)
The purpose is, quite clearly, to harm the sales of politically incorrect food and thus drive it off the market.
Still, it’s only a little number on a menu. Surely this is no big deal, right? Well, the reason I mentioned tobacco in there is that the temperance groups attacking food and beer are now openly proclaiming that tobacco control is their model. It is thus entirely appropriate, now that our cynical selves have considered what is behind the food labelling idea, to invoke the slippery slope, and to predict that where tobacco has already gone, our other pleasures will follow. Tobacco control began with labelling, and is rapidly descending towards full prohibition. The beer panic is in full swing now; and we find the progressive state moving against food in the same manner. It may seem crazy to suggest that twenty years from now there’ll be a ban on lemon meringue pie- but imagine telling somebody in 1989 that they’d ban smoking in every pub in the land. People would have called you a paranoid loon.
As the saying goes, one must stop the hammer blow when it is still in the air. The progressives are quite mad, and they are fanatics, and they are happy to spend their lives moving forward in baby steps towards their ultimate goal of prohibition (or effective prohibition, in which a thing is legal but practicably impossible to actually do anywhere legally). They are organised, they are well funded, and the underlying beliefs that justify their campaigns- that fatty food is evil, for example- are already in place.
What we see here isn’t simply “information for the consumer”. It is part of a very well organised campaign. We must thus treat it as part of that campaign, recognising that the whole reason for the insistence on the disclosure of this information is not neutral and, if we desire that there still be lemon meringue pie for sale in ten or twenty years time, and that it not have been forced out of our restaurants by these zealous campaigners, we must say a hearty “no” before things go any further.
These regulations are not about making the market work better. They are about bending the market in a very specific direction. And I would suggest that the fact that we have already reached a stage where an apparently intelligent, rational human being is mithering over how many calories are in some mashed potato, rather than just ordering some mashed potato because that is what he feels like eating, indicates how dangerously far towards the crankish state which Orwell’s sandal wearers desired we have already slipped.
We are, it seems, all sandal wearers now.