I ate a chocolate donut Saturday morning. It had chocolate frosting. And a rich creamy filling. I didn’t need to examine a nutritional label to know that it was lousy with sugar, probably corn syrup. No doubt it contained bunches and bunches of trans fats too. But it was good. Oh so good. I washed it down with a hot cup of Starbucks coffee, dark roast loaded with caffeine, a robust brew that gives me a jolt with my first swallow.
Should I be able start my weekend with a delicious donut and a hot cup of eye-opening coffee? Or must the government step in and protect me–after a hard week at the office–from my Saturday-morning urge to eat a sugar-infused ball of fried fat? I’ve been an adult for decades now. I’m reasonably intelligent. I work out six days a week. I’ve had an annual physical ever since I started seeing age 50 in the rear-view mirror. I have run more long-distance races than I can count. And nothing hangs over my belt when I zip up my jeans. Can I be trusted with responsibility for my own food choices?
Some people say “No”. A recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Rethinking our ‘Rights’ to Dangerous Behaviors”, argues that government needs to take responsibility to make food choices for me and the rest of us. The author ominously begins his essay with these words: “It has become increasingly clear that food companies engineer hyperprocessed foods in ways precisely geared to most appeal to our tastes.” In other words, the businesses that supply me with food are making products that taste good so that I will buy them. This, apparently, is evil.
And what’s a do-gooder scare story without some dark corporate conspiracy cast as the villain. In this tale it’s “an alliance of corporations, banks, marketers and others that essentially promote and benefit from unhealthy lifestyles”. In other words, they make money by giving me the food I want to eat. This cabal “designs products that are difficult to resist and sometimes addictive”! This tactic–Warning! Hyperbole Ahead!–”poses greater threats to our existence than any communicable disease you can name”. (Really? My chocolate donut is more dangerous than smallpox? Polio? HIV? Ebola? The Plague??) The remedy: “[R]eturn to the public sector the right to set health policy”. In other words, get the government to stop companies from selling me food that I want to eat.
How about trying another strategy that not only respects our freedom but also promotes good health and personal responsibility? Why not educate the public about healthy foods? Why not encourage easy-to-understand food labels so I know what’s in the food that companies are trying to sell me? Why not explain to me how good food choices are directly linked to longer life and more years to spend with the people I love? And then let me take responsibility for my own food choices. The problem, I fear, is that do-gooders don’t like the food choices that I–and the rest of you–are making and want to make those choices for us.
And another thing: corporations are not inherently evil. They are just amoral devices designed to give us what we want. If we decide that we want highly-caffeinated, over-priced beverages, Starbucks rises up and turns a profit. If we decide that local-produced, organic food is what we want, Whole Foods springs forth and makes a bunch of money. Apple just made news by rejecting a stockholder proposal to eliminate Apple’s environmentally-friendly initiatives. Perhaps one reason it did so is that consumers are rewarding Apple for its stewardship of our earth by purchasing more iPhones, iPads and iPods. It has learned that green is good for business. Corporations are organizations designed to make money by efficiently giving us what we want. They will offer us healthy and humanely-produced food–and make money in the process–if we demand healthy and humanely-produced food from them.
A government does its citizens no favor by accepting the responsibility to make good choices for their supposed benefit. In a free society the government educates its citizens about the impact of their choices and encourages them to make good ones. But it leaves to its citizens the responsibility for those choices. And that entails accepting the consequences of those choices if those choices turn out to be ill-advised.
I know those orange gumdrop slices have no nutritional value. But they bring a smile to my face when I treat myself with them every once in a while. And I’m not a big red-meat guy, but a good hamburger every now and then adds quality to my life. And here’s my little secret: I bought two of those chocolate donuts. I saved one for later. It’s calling to me from the kitchen. I just may say yes to that call. Right now.