Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Conly

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.