Mark D. White
New today from associate editor Brian Fung at The Atlantic is a piece on an experimental nutritional labeling system modeled on traffic lights. In use in the United Kingdom (where it was instituted by the British government's "nudge unit"), the revised nutrition labels would have color-coded icons for fat, calories, and other aspects of food products according to whether the levels are considered healthy or unhealthy. Mr. Fung reports the results of a study from Masschusetts General Hospital that--unsurprisingly--such labels increase the amount of healthy food consumered and lower the amount of unhealthy food consumed.
I discuss labeling systems such as these in my upcoming book, The Manipulation of Choice: Ethics and Libertarian Paternalism, in which I differentiate between the information provided by such label--which allows people to make better decisions according to their own interests--and schemes like the traffic light one which nudge people toward some food and away from others based on bureaucrats' judgment of what is healthy and what is not. (I also discussed nutrition labeling in an earlier blog post.) As Mr. Fung acknowledges, "Bickering over what red, yellow, and green actually mean is likely to be as difficult -- if not more so -- than actually putting the system in place." Some of this bickering may be political, of course, but some will be due to disagreements among health experts over what a proper diet consists of--a debate unlikely to be settled any time soon among the experts, much less by government fiat!
But what I found most interesting about Mr. Fung's article was the irony in the subheading:
If soda bans take an implicitly cynical view of human nature, food labels that give consumers the impression of freedom might be their opposite.
I don't know what could reflect a more cynical view of human nature then trumpeting proudly the prospect of "giving consumers the impression of freedom." These two approaches to paternalistic regulation are not opposites--the only difference is that one is clumsy and the other is "clever." This attitude continues as the article begins (emphasis mine):
From New York City's point of view, humans are notoriously bad at making good decisions. That's what makes a ban on large sodas necessary: the idea that Americans can't be trusted with their own health. But maybe there's a middle ground between letting people gorge themselves on junk food and making it illegal. The key to making it all work is creating an environment where consumers still believe they're in control.
No, there's no cynical view of human nature on display there.
Finally, as the article ends, Mr. Fung writes:
New York's faith in humanity must be low indeed if it thinks only the most blatant coercion can get people behaving differently. Whether collectively or alone, people are hopelessly incompetent, is the message Bloomberg's soda ban sends. A more accurate way to put it might be that people are incredibly malleable, open to having their decisions swayed in terrible ways by factors that are out of their hands. The difference is slight, but in the small gap between those two statements lies an opportunity to move people in the right direction without taking away their freedom.
As above, I disagree with Mr. Fung: the difference is not slight, it is nonexistent. In my view, all paternalists have little faith in humanity, as shown by their willingness to substitute their own judgment for those of the people they claim to help, based on an overly simplistic view of decision-making and interests. And if you "move people in the right direction" by manipulation rather than by reasoned persuasion--subverting their deliberative processes rather than engaging them--you are taking away their freedom, little by little.
But as long as they're left with the "impression" of their freedom, as long as they "still believe they're in control," I guess that's OK.