Over the holiday weekend, I got a call from Opinion Access, a telephone polling firm doing a public opinion survey on San Francisco’s proposal to ban toys in meals at fast food restaurants unless they meet certain nutritional requirements. I was initially reluctant to participate, as it sounded like I was being guided to the answer the caller was looking for (as the call went on, I think he did that less). But as I talked to this pollster on the phone and decided on the fly whether I was in favor of or opposed to this measure, I found myself confronting some of the exact same issues that I had written about in my post about Ayn Rand last week.
Before taking this poll, I had heard about the proposed legislation, but nothing more than “San Francisco is proposing to ban toys in happy meals.” So when initially asked if I favored or opposed the proposed ban, I answered “opposed”, as I was unaware of the nutritional requirements aspect of it, and I think that a total ban on toys in kids’ meals is too heavy-handed to be justified. As the call went on, I learned that this would only apply to meals that failed to meet requirements governing the amount and types of fat, calories, and sodium in each meal. This caused me to rethink my position, and look at the issue a little more carefully.
(A little background: Given my dad’s work as a Pediatric Endocrinologist and specifically his work in Madison with obese kids, I would say I am more familiar with this issue than the average American. But it also means that I’m influenced by a man who is actively involved in the Madison government’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity and recently led a panel discussion called “Preventing Obesity, It Takes A Village…“. As with anything, I’ve tried to allow for but not rely on his point of view in developing mine.)
As I explained in the Ayn Rand post, I am a statist only inasmuch as I see the state as the proper actor for improving market efficiency and correcting externalities. In a system where childhood obesity was only a problem for the parents and the child making decisions about what to eat, I would say that the government has no place in this decision, and if a parent wants to let their kid eat awful food and get fat, that’s up to them. But that’s not the world we live in. Instead we live in a world where fast food restaurants are disproportionately located in low-income areas (see here and here), low-income areas have a lower availability of healthy foods, and low-income kids are eligible for Medicaid. The fact that childhood obesity is not just a private, within-family problem, but rather has an effect on public healthcare expenditures makes this, in my eyes, a situation in which the government can correct a market failure.
A pure objectivist would argue that the solution to this problem would be to eliminate Medicaid, internalizing the costs of healthcare for the family making the fast-food decisions. I disagree with that, for a variety of reasons that are worthy of a whole other post on health care, but it’s probably not politically viable anyway (at least I would hope), so that’s not the solution. So then what is the proper way to address this market failure? I don’t have a solution, but I can see the reasoning behind SF’s proposed toy ban. The toy ban is, in my eyes, an attempt to encourage the restaurants to offer less “societally harmful” food options and to encourage kids to select those options over other less healthy options. Whether I end up supporting this particular attempt to correct this market failure will depend on the nutritional requirements that the City would set and how much of a burden it would impose upon restaurants. But regardless of my support for this one measure, I think that this is an area in which a strong argument can be made for a stronger governmental role, whether that take the form of a toy ban, more education of parents, or something else.
In the larger context of my political beliefs, I thought that this issue was an interesting thought experiment in building up my support for or opposition to a given policy. Though I favor a more “interventionist” approach from the state in this case, it is not a push for bigger government for bigger government’s sake, but an attempt to align personal incentives with societal costs.