The government of the United Kingdom is currently considering plans for calorie caps on restaurant and supermarket food, which would represent the biggest intervention in the country’s food supply since war rationing. This is part of a wider plan to cut nationwide calorie intake by 20% by 2025, ostensibly in the interest of healthcare.
The British nanny state is increasing in size exponentially.
At the end of last week’s UK news roundup on Think Liberty, I detail some of the proposed caps per food item; including 1,000 calories for a pizza.
As we all know, you can’t get a decent pizza for under 1,000 calories. It seems food providers will have to drastically change their recipes or reduce portions to comply with these new guidelines. Going to the chippy will never be the same again.
This is but the latest and most egregious step in a wave of nanny state measures taken by the prevailing Tory governments. Others include the tax on soft drinks, adding to our record-setting taxes on cigarettes, wine, and beer. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) successfully banned online advertising of high-fat and high-sugar foods. The opposition also has the busybody bug, calling for a prohibition on television junk food advertisements before 9 PM. Once you pop, you can’t stop.
We often see headlines like, “Call for increasing taxes on soft drinks,” yet never, “Call for government to leave everyone alone.” Why is that? Has the inclination for personal choice been totally battered out of us? Christopher Snowdon and the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) are some of the few voices in the UK making the case for freedom of choice.
Most interventionists see this as a public healthcare issue. The NHS reports that almost 30% of 2 to 15-year olds are obese or overweight. High sugar intake over one’s life significantly reduces your life expectancy and increases your risk of major diseases like diabetes and heart disease. They see it as the state’s responsibility to save people from their own choices.
Yet, most people who argue for freedom of choice are aware of the negative health impacts of high sugar intake. It is not out of ignorance that one supports the freedom to self-harm. In fact, most people who choose to consume a high-sugar product are aware that it is unhealthy, and that if they consume a lot, there will be negatives down the road. But consciously or not, they have taken that bargain — they accept the risks, and choose to have pleasure in the moment. This is a perfectly legitimate choice to make.
I get why there is resistance to this idea, in a sense. Not everybody shares the same preference for individual liberty as me or anyone from the IEA. Yet it is the very nature of the British system that disadvantages the liberty-lover in this debate.
John Stuart Mill, of On Liberty fame, had a principle that if the individual could absorb a negative externality of their choice, then the government she elects should allow that. After all, nobody is harmed but me if I choose to eat chocolate all day, every day. That is if the negative externalities are not forced upon those around me by the state.
This is exactly what happens in the UK. The NHS has a legal obligation to treat anybody’s healthcare problems, even if they are self-inflicted, at the taxpayer’s expense. The NHS’ biggest expense as far as patients are concerned, is lifestyle-related ailments. Those who perpetuate an unhealthy lifestyle are repeat patients.
When anyone makes the personal choice argument regarding healthcare, the interventionists quite rightly point out that individual choice is not limited to the individual — those who choose to be unhealthy end up being a burden on the health service. The liberals are then silent — who can argue with that?
The first step to finding a compromise between interventionism and personal choice is to scale back the moral hazard created by our healthcare system. We could start by reducing the level of care provided to patients with self-inflicted problems.
The NHS religion is so entrenched, however, that asking for any concession at all is an exercise in futility. What we’re left with is a purgatorial cycle of impoverishment by state taxation, inflation and debt, and restriction of our personal choices. The NHS disincentivizes responsible health choices, and the healthy ones pay for it in smaller paychecks and rubbish pizza.
Let this serve as a warning to policy-makers who think they can get away with a little bit of state intervention here or there to “nudge” certain behaviors. The law of unintended consequences is eternal.
This article represents the views of the author, and not those of Being Libertarian LLC.
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