There’s a lot to like about libertarianism. The idea that people should, in general, be left alone to make their own decisions and control their own destinies is a righteous and important one. But there’s a narrowness of focus in a lot of libertarian argumentation that I find incredibly frustrating.
Take this piece from the libertarian magazine Reason. In it, Steve Chapman claims that by regulating Happy Meals and trying to tax soda, politicians in San Francisco and New York are acting as “food police” — telling us what we can and can’t eat.
The reality is, though, that none of the politicians Chapman slams are trying to ban anything. The San Francisco law doesn’t stop parents from buying their kids fries or burgers, it just regulates which foods can be bundled with toys. And the New York proposal wouldn’t halt sales of sodas, it’d just tax them a bit more.
In today’s United States, attempts to actually ban products on moral grounds are thankfully quite rare. But by framing regulatory schemes like these as contests between free choice and state nannyism, libertarians often obscure the real dynamics at play in business-consumer relationships, and let insidious governmental acts off the hook.
Consider, for example, the recent New York Times exposé of the federal government’s role in promoting the sale of unhealthy, cheese-laden fast food. Under a paradigm of consumer choice, such bizarre schemes are unobjectionable — the feds are merely helping certain products make it to the market, where folks have the option of buying them or not.
But we make choices based on the options we’re presented with, and the choices we make are shaped by others’ decisions about what to offer us. If we’re presented with the opportunity to buy a traditional Happy Meal, we’re more likely to choose that particular set of menu items than we are if we’re left to pick and choose from an a la carte menu. If the price of Coke goes up, we’re likely to buy less of it. And if some government employee develops and promulgates a more artery-clogging pizza, then we’ll be presented with that as an option in the marketplace, and some of us will select it.
The war of autonomous consumer vs freedom-hating government is a classic libertarian construct, but as a rhetorical device it obscures as much as it illuminates. None of us constructs our world from an unbounded sea of possibility. Each of us lives an existence mediated by bureaucratic, corporate, and social forces, and those forces interrelate in ways far more complex than the “market vs government” strawman suggests.