Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Cereal killers

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There’s been much activity in the Twittersphere regarding the suggestion by the Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, that food manufacturers should be prohibited from selling foods with too much sugar. A lot of these are breakfast foods, giving rise to a number of witty comments including the one which forms my headline. Other tweeters are up in arms at what they see as typical Labour statism wanting to take responsibility away from individuals.

I’m no fan of Labour’s authoritarian approach to legislation, obviously, and neither is anyone with any genuine grasp of the importance of personal freedom. The mainstream libertarian left is to be found mainly in the Liberal Democrats these days, and the libertarian right is split between the Conservatives and UKIP (although all these parties have their share of authoritarians as well). So it’s no surprise that the more thoughtful responses to Burnham’s proposals come from these groups.

Having said that, I think there is a genuine problem here. One of the problems with libertarianism as a political principle (and something that has to be honestly faced by anyone who would call themselves a libertarian) is that there are, quite simply, too many people who lack either the ability or the desire to act in rational self-interest. And these people do matter, not least because their self-destructive tendencies affect the rest of us. There’s plenty of evidence that children who grow up with a poor diet are significantly more likely to become net recipients of state spending as adults.

So, what’s the solution? Should we be banning Coco Pops, and refusing planning permission for McDonalds to open near schools (as has been suggested by Diane Abbot, Shadow Minister for Public Health)?

Personally, I don’t think so. I’m not arguing that legislation is never the answer; I think that there may be cases in extremis where it’s the most practical solution to the problem of people being incapable of acting rationally. But I don’t think it’s the case here. I’m open to persuasion otherwise, but it seems to me that this particular proposal is merely addressing one particular symptom rather than the cause.

What does bother me, though, is the dishonesty inherent in the proposals. Blame the naughty manufacturers for making things that people want to buy, and the naughty retailers for selling them. I’ve said that people’s inability to act rationally is a problem for libertarians, but it’s an even bigger problem for socialist authoritarians. Because authoritarianism says, in effect, to the people it regulates “We don’t trust you, we think you’re evil or stupid or otherwise incapable of getting it right without our help”. Now, I’m actually quite comfortable with saying that to some people, because, frankly, that really does describe a significant proportion of the population. But for Labour, that’s electoral suicide, because nearly everyone who falls into that category also happens to vote for them.

That means Labour politicians are caught in something of a catch 22. They know that the reason there is a problem is because a lot of people are stupid. But they also know that a lot of those people vote for them. So they can’t openly come out and say “We’re doing this for your own good, because if we don’t then you’re just going to be more and more of a burden on an already overloaded welfare state”. Instead, they have to try to make it seem as if the fault lies with those who make and sell foods which, if eaten to excess, can be harmful. And that’s dishonest, because there’s absolutely nothing wrong at all with sugary breakfast cereals if eaten as part of a balanced diet. In fact, when it comes to healthy eating, the evidence points in the other direction: having no breakfast at all is worse for you than having too much.

The other reason it’s dishonest is because it tries to shuffle the debate away from the real, underlying issue. What do we do about people who can’t, or won’t, make rational decisions about things like diet, employment, parenting and finance? We cannot solve those problems by pretending that everyone with obese children, or who is hugely in debt to a payday loan company, is a victim of predatory capitalism. The reality is that if everybody made rational decisions, these companies would either go bust or start selling something else. Which is how the free market works.

Maybe we do need to regulate food manufacturers, or short term lenders. I’d actually be more in favour of regulating the latter than the former, mainly because there would be less collateral damage to those who are capable of running their own lives. But, either way, any justification for regulation has to start from the fact that it’s only necessary because people buying the products are dumb, not because those selling them are evil. And Labour’s attempt to make it sound as though it’s the latter merely demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of their politics.