Food is on the tip of everyone's tongue these days.  It even came up during Elena Kagan's Supreme Court hearings today.  You can watch the video below.  Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma asked if the government could pass a law mandating that people eat three fruits and three vegetables a day.

Coburn's question really was about the Commerce Clause, not food.  The Constitution gives Congress the power "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes".  Despite the fact that the word "regulate" did not have the same meaning when it was written as it does today, the interstate portion of the clause has been interpreted by the Supreme Court (most definitively during the New Deal) to mean that the Federal Government can regulate anything that might possibly impact interstate trade.  Essentially, anything and everything.  Even what we eat, is Coburn's point.
Health care and food taxes/regulations are deeply intertwined.  (Health and food are deeply intertwined.)  We're increasingly seeing calls for soda taxes here in New York City.  It's in line with other "sin taxes" (smoking, gambling), which politicians find easier to levy.  Congress definitely has the power to tax.   But the public willingness to accept food taxes and eventually, more restrictive federal regulations, will only increase as people feel that they are paying for other people's healthcare.
To a large extent we already do pay for other people's healthcare via Medicaid and Medicare — and even through private health insurance (where I am pooled with others, many less healthy than I, to arrive at a group rate).  But the perception and reality of Peter paying for Paul's healthcare will only increase under the new health care legislation.  And the implications are pretty easy to follow: If I'm paying for your healthcare, you better believe I'm going to tell you how to eat.  This certainly won't come through prohibitions and mandates (no politician is that stupid), but through taxes and incentives.
What really scares me is that the long-time foundation of the USDA food pyramid has been a food group, grains, that humans basically did not eat prior to the Agricultural Revolution.  And don't forget the decades long and deeply misguided War on Fat.  Doesn't exactly inspire confidence!

The beauty of a system based more on individual responsibility is that people have the freedom to live as they please: healthy or unhealthy.  Of course, then you have to let people face the consequences of their decisions, as if they were fully capable adults.

9 Responses to “Can the government tell you what to eat?”

  1. David Csonka says:

    What is funny to me however, is that our economy would seem to me, stronger because of all of these poor food guidelines and general poor health. It creates industries which spring up to "cure" these health problems. The healthcare industry has been the big growth industry for years now. I wonder what would happen to our economy if everybody was strong and healthy, and didn’t eat the manufactured food that gets advertised endlessly on TV.

    I wonder if our economy is stronger because we are unhealthy. It creates more product markets for corporations to monetize.

    • John says:

      Seems that way, but I disagree. If we wanted to, we could mandate that all products had to be thrown out after one month of usage. But that wouldn’t make people wealthier.

      It’s the Broken Window Fallacy:

      Ultimately, there will always be ways that people will serve the needs of others, and make a living doing so.

    • Paul Knick says:

      The flaw in your argument Larry is that that money we spend on health care would be spent on something else. If we didn’t spend money on health care we would spend it on something else. The money would get into the economy one way or another. Where health care would affect us monetarily is in productivity. Sick days cost us billions of dollars in lost productivity. We would be wealthier if people were healthier.

  2. Katt says:

    " Of course, then you have to let people face the consequences of their decisions, as if they were fully capable adults."

    I would generally agree. Unfortunately, we also have millions of Americans who, through a variety of circumstances beyond their control (The people of the Gulf Coast  fishing communities currently come to mind), are unable to afford health care. I would prefer a more flexible system, one that lets people opt out to enjoy their individuality and personal freedom, while taking care of those who are unable to do so. Unfortunately, something like requires a great deal of care, regulation and control – both in what to put in and what to leave out.  Right now, we live in the dichotomy of all or nothing with little room for compromise.

    • Melissa says:

      Hey Katt,

      I am a gulf coast resident, and yet I would have to agree with the idea that all of us is in control of our decisions and must live with those consequences. No, it’s not our fault that BP killed our foodsource, but here’s a thought:

      I choose to live in a precarious place because I have a love for the ocean. With that decision comes the risk of losing my home due to a hurricane. Should you have to pay for that? No! It’s my fault. I could have just as easily chosen to live inland and given up the good parts of living near the water. Forcing you to pay for my decision without giving you the benefits I receive (gulf views, daily surfing, beach running, fresh seafood) is completely unfair and is not in line with the original intent of the founding fathers.

    • John says:

      What I’d like to see is a government safety net for catastrophic coverage only — the types of events that are least controllable by individual decision-making AND tug at our moral heartstrings the most. And then a completely free market in all health services.

      • Katt says:

        Something like that could be workable. We still have quite the disparity between the rich (or median) and poor, however.  I have also come to have less faith in the free market as a system. In a utopian land where everyone followed the rules of society or the society is very small, perhaps it would work. Human nature being what it is, corporate entities have shown that they only care about the bottom dollar and competition is a sin. If they can stamp it out or buy it out, they will, all for the Almighty Dollar.

  3. Matthew Allen Miller says:

    Our wise and benevolent leaders would do well to ask, before passing further legislation, whether any already-existing legislation is contributing to our health problems. I’m thinking of corn subsidies (and farm subsidies in general), for starters. This would help cut back on the amount of HFCS in our food and the amount of corn fed to our livestock. Of course, that wouldn’t be a very sexy political move. 

    By the way, nice job pointing out the broken window fallacy. Did you know that today is Bastiat’s birthday?

  4. Kevin says:

    Michael Pollan has expressed some interesting ideas on the issue.


    I remember hearing him talk about the problem with government subsidized corn — it is not nutritious for humans, and because of the subsidies, it is just about the only thing that poor people can afford.


    His solution?  Obviously the subsidies have to go, but he had another interesting idea: He suggested that the FDA create a legal definition of food.  That way, frankenfoods like corndogs could not be purchased with foodstamps.  The government already disallows the purchase of alcohol with foodstamps…why not extend that to "foods" with no nutritional value.  Things that are purchased and consumed because they are affordable, but in the long run, are quite harmful to the health and cost a lot of money due to sickness, obesity, etc.



Leave a Reply