Food Choice and the Nanny State

» March 1st, 2013

In order for civil society to be civil, the individual must be free to choose what’s best for the individual. Left unfettered to make decisions without undue external influence, the individual, in choosing for herself also chooses for the social fabric as a whole, a fabric whose integrity depends on the thriving of liberty.

This basic idea, one with modern roots in the work of John Stuart Mill (and postmodern tethers in the mutterings of Ron Paul) once held great sway with me. Here in Texas, after all, the idea is bigger than the state and it’s certainly one that you don’t mess with, especially in West Texas, where they defend FREEDOM with high powered weaponry from underground bunkers.

Applied to food, the concept of personal choice finds friendly turf in Mill’s libertarian leaning philosophy. Somewhere on this blog, at some point in time, I’m sure I’ve written something to the effect of “veganism must be a personal choice.” After all, we have access to more information than ever before, prices of good honest vegan food have never been lower, and we are good enough and smart enough (thank you Stuart Smalley) to make the right choices.

So, the logic goes, let us make these choices without fussbudgets such as Mayor Bloomberg authorizing his city to dictate the size of my Slur-pee. Many critics have cashed in on condemning the emergence of so-called “nanny state.” Check out this. It’s very popular and usually not subtle and it ignores the fact that I have to pay for your diabetes. Still.

A new book, however, suggests that it’s naive to think that we can choose what’s best for ourselves. In Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, Sarah Conly argues that “we are too fat, we are too much in debt, and we save too little for the future.” This is all for a simple reason: there’s no one there to tell us no. Paternalistic intervention, she explains, will thus correct “errors in instrumental thinking” and, in the long run, bring people closer to what they really want: financial security, health, better plans for the future. This is not a very popular idea and it ignores the fact that people will call you a socialist.

But, contrary to what I once believed, I think Conly—who by no means takes her idea to an extreme—is right. Especially when it comes to food. The complexity of commercial life makes negotiating the grocery aisles (or the farmer’s market) with intelligent discernment practically a full-time job. When it comes to the details of food production, we know a lot less than we think we know.

I’m continually amazed, for example, at highly educated and financially well-off people who don’t know that milk comes from cows who have been forcibly and serially impregnated. Ditto for those who think organic food is “chemical free.” True, more information is out there than ever before. Google is the great leveler. But savvy corporate interests (as well as savvy organic farmers) have so effectively co-opted and scrambled that information, spitting it back at us through propagandized informercials and industry-funded studies, that it’s hard to know what the hell’s what anymore.

At the least, a few government led nudges couldn’t hurt. In so far as this applies to the vegan agenda, my feeling it that if New York City can place a limit on the size of a sugary drink we can hold out hope that the guv’ment might someday decide that chickens pumped with growth hormones and vaccines, or cows laden with e-coli, or eggs that too often carry salmonella should be regulated like a Nation reporter at a Republican convention. That wouldn’t be a victory, but it’d be a start toward top-down, nanny state, socialist agenda vegan food policy. Which sounds pretty damn good to me.

The sad news, and the irony, is that with Cambridge University Press selling Conly’s book at $95.00 a pop, those who will read it are least in need of hearing its message.

tomorrow: the declining transparency of city animal shelters

note: my daughter tells me she’s back to posting at Feel free to drop in.



4 Responses to Food Choice and the Nanny State

  1. John T. Maher says:

    Today’s post is really about the tension between so-called rights and a collective responsibility in terms of the already existing Biopolitical regulation of the population by the sovereign. Capitalism acts to remove human agency in terms of any real ability to make informed choices despite the neo-liberal double-speak that the state exists to offer choices. Contemptuous of humanity you say? I respond that no one chooses to eat to be fat or have diabetes and yet an unbelievable number of Amis are fat and eat foods which cause massive health and environmental problems. I wish humans to make informed choices about their collective responsibility. This is not possible when the state exists to essentially enable the economy. Foods that make humans fat are good for at least the special interests who produce these foods, the health care system and that shibboleth-ic devil misunderstood by the name of economic growth. Sometimes it takes a nanny to tell its irresponsible charges not to piss all over the common, lest tragedy result. Did I mention, in another context with the same meaning, fracking?

    • Mountain says:

      Hey John, any interest in apologizing for slandering me? It’s been more than three weeks now, but it isn’t too late to undo harm you’ve done to a sentient being. It’d be surprising if you took me up on my offer, but I, for one, would be very impressed if you did.

  2. James,

    Bravo! And thanks for the resource.

    Perhaps encouraging your readers to inundate the public library systems with requests for Conly’s book could help make it more accessible?

  3. Mountain says:

    Having grown up on the teat of the nanny state (AFDC and SSI, in the house!), I hope you can forgive me for saying I want less of it, not more. How’s ’bout we just decide on whatever level of welfare we, as a society, wish to provide, and then just hand it over? As in, how’s ’bout we just give the poor whatever level of assistance we deem appropriate, and then butt out. It’s none of our business how they (and once upon a time, we) choose to live their lives.

    Are we too fat? The gov’t played a big role in that.

    Are we too much in debt? The gov’t fer damn sure’s played a big role in that.

    Do we save too little for the future? Well, sheeeeeeit, the gov’t done went and exacerbated that.

    Oh, and you paying for my diabetes? Well, no, ’cause I ain’t never gettin’ no diabetes. But you paying for Wilford Brimley’s diabeetus? Well, sorry bro, but you got the nanny state to blame for that.

    Remember your post on Masanobu Fukuoka a while back? “In farming there is little that cannot be eliminated.” Yeah, well, in life and in government there is little that cannot be eliminated.

    If gov’t would do nothing that promotes the caging of animals & stuffing them with corn & soy, the problem might not go away altogether, but it would certainly get a lot smaller. Gov’t should look at what it’s doing to harm animals (and by extension, people) and do nothing instead.

    As for the nanny state (or the welfare state, as it was called when I was growing up), hand over the money and butt the F out. You can’t have atrocities like segregation without the active involvement of the state (nanny, welfare, or otherwise). You can have the racism of the north without state support, but you don’t get the special horror of segregation and Jim Crow without the state. The state can get the F out.

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