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Friday, May 18, 2007

Libertarian Poison - Part II

In the previous post on this subject (Libertarian Poison), I asked if government intervention was appropriate if restaurants hypothetically added a poison to foods to make them taste better without the patrons of those restaurants knowing they would be poisoned. In the comments, Oroborous immediately nailed it - the situation isn't actually hypothetical. Poison is actually being added to foods at some restaurants and the patrons have no way of really knowing whether or not they're being poisoned. However, I realize that there's easily room to disagree on whether the particular substance I have in mind actually qualifies as a poison. That's why I wanted to keep it in the hypothetical realm to start the discussion.

The poison (as revealed by Oroborous) is partially hydrogenated oil. I believe the health risks are sufficiently established to call partially hydrogenated oil a poison, albeit a mild one, without being too hyperbolic (maybe just parabolic). Restaurants can add this substance to food (or use foods where it's already been added) without bothering to tell you. I happen to be particularly sensitive to it, so I often ask, when at a restaurant ,whether or not they use it. The response is usually a blank, uncomprehending stare, or an "I dunno, beats me".

The answer to whether or not the government might intervene in this case was a resounding NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! from the libertarians at Cafe Hayek. I was completely skewered in the comments section for saying that I could see both sides of the issue (always interesting commenting in an echo chamber as the lone dissenting view). Indeed, it was put forth that if I could support the tyranny of government to ban trans fats, then, well, it would lead to, and I'd support, the tyranny of government to perform all kinds of atrocities! Here is a somewhat typical (though slightly more hysterical than average) comment in response to mine:
Now that you've opened the door [by banning trans fats], what is to prevent government from flinging it wide open? It's already busy seizing private property under "eminent domain" laws ala Hugo Chavez. Do you think you'll be asked for special permission if we were to, say, send the Japanese to "special" camps for any reason? In thinking about public policy, it behooves you to think beyond stage one.
Wow, talk about an exceedingly slippery slope!

In response I asked:

Each situation requires its own analysis. Are strict libertarians really not allowed to consider each situation individually?

To which a commenter named Matt C. responded:

Smart libertarians don't.

Well, there you have it. A smart libertarian (according to Matt C. anyway) is not willing to distinguish between the level of tyranny required to ban trans fats at restaurants in a single county and the level of tyranny to "send the Japanese to special camps". Obviously, this is an extreme view. It seems at least as rigid and extreme as any of the views on the democratic underground. And smart (and extreme) libertarians wonder why their candidates get almost no votes and they have extremely limited political influence.

The thing is, I'm moderately (slightly?) libertarian in my viewpoints and voting record. I usually opt for the free market to do its job. I usually don't support legislation like this. But that's because usually the information is distributed and at least a significant subset of consumers are making at least adequately informed choices. Free markets are the best aggregator of information in that case and provide the best choices to consumers.

However, in this case, the consumers do not yet have the information regarding trans fats. The information is relatively new. Before about ten years ago, it was assumed that there were no problems with trans fats. Indeed, once upon a time, things like margarine (which is pretty much pure hydrogenated vegetable oil) were thought to be healthier than their natural equivalents (in this case butter). As a result, the vast majority of consumers are going about making their consumption choices with incorrect information. In this one case, I think that the information (that I happen to believe is correct) is concentrated and that allowing a centralized authority (i.e. government) to act upon it is going to be superior to letting the markets take their course.

I agree that I may still be wrong. There may be disastrous unintended consequences that result from this ban. However, the ban is being enacted in only one county in the entire country. This is a small local experiment. We can see how it goes and learn from it. Because it's so localized, if the overall effect due to unintended consequences are net negative, at least they will be limited. Because of this limitation, I'm very comfortable taking this gamble.

I just wish San Diego (where I live) was where this experiment was taking place.


Oroborous said...

I believe that the market is speaking.

The national fast-food chain KFC is eliminating trans-fats from their foods, because they think that they'll win market share, and additional profits, by doing so.

In that case, no gov't action was necessary, or even seriously contemplated.

Bret said...

That's good news regarding KFC. However, there's a difference between a company with a limited menu will thousands of outlets making a change, and every small independent restaurant stopping the addition of trans-fats into their meals.

I'm still interested to see what happens in Montgomery county.