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Food Fight

January 2, 2011

The French Cowboy enjoyed reading this piece in the Wall Street Journal. The author, Eric Felten, speaks out against the culture that wants to turn the enjoyment of good food into a sin:

[H]igh on best-seller lists is a cookbook that makes no pretense of counting calories, Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa: How Easy Is That?” Ms. Garten, whose TV show appears on the Food Network, is there on the cover, cheerfully plump, unapologetically proffering a tray full of meringue-and-heavy-cream desserts. It’s the picture of innocence—which is what makes it so diabolical. You see, the Barefoot Contessa is peddling disease and ruin, having published one of the unhealthiest cookbooks of the year.

Or at least that’s the story published in a number of newspapers, thanks to columnists reprinting the “findings” of a “report” put out by a Washington activist group that styles itself the “Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.” A spokesman for the group denounced Ms. Garten and other celebrity chefs, such as Gordon Ramsay of “Hell’s Kitchen” fame, for using “some of the worst possible ingredients.” Among the poisonous compounds enumerated? Butter and cream.

No doubt Ms. Garten and Mr. Ramsay are guilty as charged. Not only do they use butter and cream, but they recognize that just about everything is better with bacon. The Barefoot Contessa notes in the introduction to her book that she is after “that deep, delicious flavor that makes a meal so satisfying.” Deep. Delicious. Satisfying. Can there be any doubt that these are code words for fat, salt and sugar?

“Of course, something with tons of fat and tons of butter and sugar are going to be appealing to the tastebuds,” complains the activist group’s flack. “And all of these cookbooks use all of that stuff. To me it’s like cheating.” Just imagine! A cook using ingredients that taste good.

Not different from some packaged food, though, what the label “Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine” suggests is a different content from what’s actually inside. As Felten notes:

The “Physicians Committee” isn’t quite the disinterested purveyor of health information that one might assume from the newspaper articles. The organization was founded to promote animal rights, and its horror of bacon and butter has less to do with concern over our arteries than with dismay at the grisly fate of pigs and the unjust captivity of cows. The committee’s diet of choice isn’t just vegetarian, but vegan. And their advice isn’t so much scientific as it is moralistic—consider the titles of the recipe books they endorse: “The Kind Diet” and “The Conscious Cook.”

In other words, the “Physicians Committee” is promoting just another ersatz religion.

One sentence in Felten’s piece I found particularly interesting. He writes:

Perhaps if Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent less time keeping salt off our tables and more time getting salt on the streets, New York roads might have been passable this week.

A cheap pun that exploits an unrelated current news story? It’s more than that. With this sentence Monsieur Felten hints at the political debate over food, parallel to the one he’s writing about. Because where there are activists there are persons in public offices who listen to them. The battle over food choices is not fought out in the private sector only. Regulation of nutrition is expanding, and for ever weaker reasons. And a leftist First Lady dedicated to the cause of fighting obesity might be just a little too close to power for comfort.

The salt-on-table-vs-salt-on-streets wordplay bears an argument often made by opponents of growing food regulation. A mayor gets elected to get specific things done, like, eg, making sure that the city doesn’t turn into planet Hoth during snowfalls. He doesn’t get elected to regulate the amount of salt you add to your diet. So when said mayor doesn’t manage to get the things done he’s been elected to do, why should he start adding to his duties and begin managing something people can very well manage themselves?

It’s possible, of course, that Mayor Bloomberg would be much more adapt at regulating your diet than at getting your streets ploughed. But if all of New York City’s public streets were perfectly free of ice or snow this winter, I doubt that anyone would consider that a reason to invite Bloomberg to set up diet plans for everyone. The point is that there is a limit to what government should be doing, irrespective of efficiency. Some things the government does well or better than other organisations. The reasons can be economical, organisational, sometimes social, or even (arguably) moral. The reasons why government shouldn’t be doing a specific thing can be just as varied.

Efficiency alone is not strong enough as a rationale to hand over power to public organisations. It’s often argued that persons with pre-existing conditions cannot receive health insurance unless the individual mandate is instituted. So if you want to prohibit health insurance companies from rejecting patients then you have to (indirectly) turn the insurance market into a public contract. Accepting this premise as true, for the sake of argument, it still doesn’t lead to the conclusion that the individual mandate is the right choice. Forcing everyone into buying health insurance by law undermines economic liberty which is a basic foundation stone of a free society.*

The French Cowboy remembers well an interview done by NPR. They spoke with two law experts, one right-leaning, the other left-leaning. While it wasn’t the main topic of the conversation, the two were asked whether they see any chances for the case to be won that argues that the individual mandate is unconstitutional. The right-leaning lawyer saw a possibility. The left-leaning said — and I’m paraphrasing from memory: “To finance the coverage of people with pre-existing conditions, and the currently uninsured in general, we must have an individual mandate.” This, of course, is not an answer to the question and leaves out entirely what’s at issue here, namely the Constitution. This expert of the law seems to think that the Constitution is irrelevant as soon as economic considerations in a completely artificial setting point into one direction. The logic is: “We’ve set ourselves into an economic trap, and rather than untangling our policy monstrosity, we should be shredding the Constitution to solve this.”

It may well be that we’d be much healthier in the coming years if we all had our diets controlled by Mayor Bloomberg and the First Lady. But the French Cowboy thinks that, all in all, we’re still better off being allowed to chose our nutrition for ourselves, even at the risk of it being suboptimal. Because, while I don’t know whether any studies have shown this yet, I believe that there’s more to a happy and fulfilled life than a scientifically calibrated calorie intake.

*I have to add here that there is nothing efficient about ObamaCare in the first place. It can be argued that it’s efficient to force everybody into an insurance pool, though.

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