Ballad of an obese man
Liberalism, free choice, and Happy Meals
It has been buy cialis online without prescription
com/s/ap/20101002/ap_on_bi_ge/us_legislating_health”>reported that the city of San Francisco is considering an ordinance that would ban toys in kids meals unless the meals contain fruit and vegetable portions and limits calories. While the proposed ban applies to all restaurants, it is targeted specifically at McDonald’s and their infamous Happy Meals.
There is little doubt that childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States, and that the government has an interest in fighting it. Furthermore, drawing on contemporary liberal theory, I think it is pretty easy to justify at least some laws aimed at regulating public health. However, it is far less clear how a law as harsh and direct as banning Happy Meals can be justified.
One interesting aspect of this law is that it is clearly targeted at children, since the vast majority of Happy Meals are purchased by parents for their child. Children are legally (and perhaps morally) not autonomous, without a right to determine the course of their own lives. While it seems obvious this proposed ordinance does eliminate one choice (e.g. the unhealthy Happy Meal), the constraint is on a specific type of liberty – freedom to choose for one’s children. It is clear that sometimes the state can legitimately constrain how parents raise their children (think child abuse laws), but is this ordinance one of those times?
It is generally agreed that state actions aimed at children should be in their “best interest.” This is the major right of the child. Parent’s rights, by contrast, can be viewed as deriving from their children’s rights.
One way to spell out the “best interest” principle is to ask what the child would choose if she was an adult. Based on facts in modern Western society about parents’ emotional attachment and personal stake in the child, not to mention their special knowledge of the child, it is reasonably assumed that parents are best equipped to make this judgment.
Despite this initial presumption in favor of the parent, there are cases when parents make choices obviously damaging to the interests of the child. For example, in the case of child abuse, the child obviously would not choose to be abused if she was an adult. These are the times when the government is justified in constraining free choice. So, does ordering a Happy Meal fall into this category?
Well, on one hand, unhealthy foods, while perhaps not actually addictive, are certainly habit forming, especially at a young age. A lifetime of unhealthy eating choices can cause serious problems in the future, problems that eventually restrict liberty, on the expansive “positive” conception. Thus, preventing children from going down this path seems very much in the best interests of the child.
However, the actual case is not this straightforward. Children are not considered autonomous because they tend to act inconsistently, irrationally, or in ignorance. However, many clear-headed and reasonable adults, in full knowledge of the health risks, do indulge in unhealthy foods. It
is not obviously irrational to decide that the enjoyment of unhealthy foods is worth the consequences. Because the choice was made freely, the state is not justified in outlawing it.
Considering that some adults, acting completely rationally, still choose to eat unhealthy foods, it is not at all clear that children would always choose to abstain from Happy Meals were they adults. This being the case, it cannot be definitively and categorically claimed that Happy Meals damage the child’s interests. Thus, the state is probably not justified in barring the parent from making this particular choice.
The situation might be different were the state making cialis canadian pharmacy the choice of the unhealthy meal less attractive, say, by taxing it. That raises its own issues, but it’s less extreme and paternalistic than taking a possibly voluntary choice away by fiat.
Photo by Flickr user Hazel Motes used under a Creative Commons Attribution license