The Conversation

The Dangers of Government Paternalism

Thanks to big government nannies, it's become commonplace for bureaucrats to pick winners and losers by taxing or regulating businesses out of existence.  They identify the product -- sodium, soda, trans fats, foie gras, tobacco, even food trucks -- they deem not good for you or the community and then develop tax codes or regulations to hurt the industry or attempt to curb people's consumption.  In addition to the issue of government interference in the free market is the government's poor record on these matters.

Remember the food pyramid? It’s a prime example of the dangers of government paternalism. Developed in 1991 by the Department of Agriculture and aggressively thrust into the faces of Americans, it considered all types of fat to be bad and thought carbohydrates were the best thing ever. But we know now that not all fat is created equal, and carb-watching has become a new national pastime.

Because of these errors, Americans were fooled into adopting waistline-expanding diets. Even federal food programs were impacted, as they were required to meet food pyramid guidelines.

Though the potential for mass error ought to be reason enough not to centralize individual decision making, the problems with the food pyramid went beyond just wrong ideas — it was also captured by special interests. Early versions of the pyramid counseled to consume less red meat and dairy, but were scrapped when the respective industries complained, and a lawsuit later revealed that more than half of the advisory committee members had financial ties to those industries.

Perverse incentives that put special interests ahead of individual welfare thus leave government uniquely unqualified to decide what is best for individuals. Yet over and over again that is precisely what it does through the tax code. Several states have taxes on soda, and more are considering it. Calls for taxes on junk food are also common. And the growing fetish for raw foods over prepared frozen or convenience meals threatens to follow the same path.

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Soft paternalism is often sold as a moderate alternative to more intrusive controls, but in practice has largely the same negative consequences as in-your-face paternalism. Politicians are prone to giving weight to the concerns of special interests over those of the people they claim to be protecting from themselves. They’re also not very good at figuring out what’s best for people.


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