Food: More Like a Drug Than Like Pencils
I was talking to Neil Sinhababu recently and he usefully drew a distinction between desires you would attribute to someone even if he was asleep at the time (”John wants to lose weight, find a better job, and pay down his student loans”) and desires you might attribute to someone in the moment (”John wants to hang out at the bar for another two hours and drink more beer”).
Matt brings this up in terms of dining choices. "Many of us who might have one kind of desire to consume fewer calories nonetheless find ourselves drawn toward high-calorie orders in the moment," he writes. There's pretty good evidence that food, like many other relatively primal desires, actually changes the way we think when we're near it. Ask someone on a diet if they want to eat a Snicker's bar and they'll tell you that they don't. Put a Snicker's bar in front of them and they'll eat it. The reactions you get on a brain scanner when you put people or animals near food is a lot closer to the reactions you get for drugs than the reactions you get for, say, pencils. David Kessler's book has a pretty good rundown of the experiments in this vein if you're interested.
To map this onto a larger political argument, one of the functions of government is to advantage our long-term desires over our momentary desires. Laws preventing us from punching people in the face, for instance, advantage our general objections to punching people in the face over our occasional desire to throw a right cross at the guy who cut in front of us in line. The individual mandate in health-care reform is a way to advantage our desire to have health-care coverage in case of sickness or accident over our desire to not call health insurance brokers at any given moment or to buy things with a more immediate and sure payoff. Consumer regulations are a way of advantaging our desire for safe products over our impulse to buy the cheapest thing on display.
I don't think most people want laws deciding what sort of food we eat. But it does raise interesting questions. The marketplace is designed for products about which we are relatively rational consumers. But what about products for which we aren't rational consumers? In some cases, we ban their sale (drugs, sex). In some cases, we regulate heavily (alcohol, tobacco). In some cases, we don't do much of anything, and we suffer the consequences of our irrationality (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, certain forms of cancers).
I don't know that that militates toward anything in particular. We obviously shouldn't ban food, or prohibit the manufacturing of large plates. But it helps explain what's going on here, and why things like menu labeling and junk food taxes actually poll very well. People know they make bad decisions in the moment. Part of what they do with government -- and, for that matter, with things like savings accounts -- is try to help themselves make better decisions in the moment. It's not a crazy idea.
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