In the only interesting event of this last Election Day, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 8-to-3 to ban restaurants from giving away free toys with kid’s meals if the meals do not pass a series of nutritional and health requirements. In doing so, the board hopes to reduce the appeal of unhealthy foods. According to an article on sfgate.com, the decision will come into effect in December 2011.
It is not difficult to imagine what responses the online articles received. Many praised the board’s action as a good (or at least symbolic) first step to address child obesity. Many vilified the decision, mostly on the premise that the health of children is the responsibility of their parents, not the government. As a Libertarian, I find that objection to be quite catchy and seductive — it sounds so nice and it goes down smooth. But in the end it’s just too easy. There is more going on here, and it’s far more complex.
To say that it is the responsibility of parents, not the government, to make healthy food choices for kids is a compelling argument for many of us. But is that actually happening here? No; this decision is not preventing parents from making their kids fat. It’s just a little toy. No food changes were mandated at all. All they are doing is manipulating the incentives.
That, in my opinion, is the interesting point — the manipulation. It is founded on a handful of assumptions. One, there is a need for a change in children’s diets. Two, the government in question has the ability to affect this change. Three, the government has the responsibility to put the change into effect.
Every child needs to be taught good food habits. The primary teachers are the parents. There are a lot of fat kids out there. The majority of them eat the way their parents permit. If parents indeed should take responsibility for their children’s health, then a vast percentage of parents are failing in that responsibility. This isn’t an issue of people merely ignoring their own health; they are ignoring the health of the children in their care. If parents don’t take responsibility, who does? Something needs to be done.
Kids love toys. If the freebie toys didn’t help sell the kid’s meals, they wouldn’t be included. Obviously, kids’ desire for the toy increases parents’ inclination to purchase the meals. If there is no toy, perhaps the kids won’t be so interested in the junk food. Removing the toy — manipulating the manipulation — definitely changes the dynamic. Is it enough to prevent childhood obesity? No, but it could be a step.
Something needs to be done and the proposed solution is a possible step in the right direction. Fabulous. But does the board have the right to do this? There is no easy answer here.
At what point does a parent’s refusal to take responsibility cause that responsibility to transfer to another entity? At what point do companies have to take responsibility for the misuse of products that are not inherently harmful? When a person or entity refuses to take responsibility, to where does that responsibility get shifted? Is responsibility even a part of the equation at all?
What strikes me about the board’s decision is its apparent pragmatism; they asked two questions — what needs to be done and how do we do it? The question of whether they had the responsibility had been quietly assumed away. Of course it was their responsibility to fix things.
I wasn’t surprised that the board will require companies to change their actions — I was surprised that such a requirement was considered “business as usual.” I wasn’t surprised that kids’ preference for toys was manipulated; instead, I was surprised that the manipulation was “business as usual.” The parents’ irresponsibility was “business as usual.” The whole process reeked of normalcy.
I was not surprised that the board chose to manipulate people; I was surprised that such manipulation was seemingly treated as routine and healthy. It wasn’t a shameful concession to parental failure, it was right and proper.
In the end, the board’s hands were tied. We like to think that every problem has a solution, but that’s not always true. Sometimes we make wrong decisions until there are no right decisions left and every choice is wrong. When parents choose not to raise their children correctly, the rest of society is forced to choose the lesser of two evils — but both decisions are still wrong. The normalization of manipulation is a greater wrong than the manipulation itself.
Being a fully-functional adult is more than doing the right things; it is choosing the right things. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors made a bad decision — not by manipulating children, but by assuming that volition is less important than behavior.