Monday, January 11, 2010

A Line Drawn in the Salt

[New York Times]
January 11, 2010

New York Seeks National Effort to Curb Salt in Food


First New York City required restaurants to cut out trans fat. Then it made restaurant chains post calorie counts on their menus. Now it wants to protect people from another health scourge: salt.  On Monday, the Bloomberg administration plans to unveil a broad new health initiative aimed at encouraging food manufacturers and restaurant chains across the country to curtail the amount of salt in their products.

The plan, for which the city claims support from health agencies in other cities and states, sets a goal of reducing the amount of salt in packaged and restaurant food by 25 percent over the next five years.  Public health experts say that would reduce the incidence of high blood pressure and should help prevent some of the strokes and heart attacks associated with that condition. The plan is voluntary for food companies and involves no legislation. It allows companies to cut salt gradually over five years so the change is not so noticeable to consumers.

“We all consume way too much salt, and most of the salt we consume is in the food when we buy it,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, the city health commissioner, whose department is leading the effort. Eighty percent of the salt in Americans’ diets comes from packaged or restaurant food. Dr. Farley said reducing salt from those sources would save lives.

Since taking office, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who just began his third term, has gained a reputation as an advocate for healthy living, initiating prominent campaigns against smoking and harmful trans fats. To combat obesity, he has campaigned for calorie labeling on restaurant menus and warned consumers about sugary soft drinks.  The city’s salt campaign is in some ways more ambitious and less certain of success than the ones it waged against smoking and obesity.

Kent comments:

While in some ways talk about how much salt people consume might seem unimportant, in this context it is crucial.  It is crucial because it comes here in the context of governmental control of the most intimate aspects of the lives of individuals.

Do people sometimes engage in self-destructive behavior?  Few would dispute that fact.  But the point that is seldom considered in such contexts is whether or not individuals should be allowed to engage in what some would deem self-destructive behavior.

The default view lately seems to be that it is the proper role of government to make sure that nobody is able to do anything that might harm himself.  This can seem like a noble undertaking to many people – especially well-intentioned people.  It appears that we are helping people when we make sure they can’t do anything to harm themselves.  To some uncritical Christian people it can seem like we are doing the ‘work of the Lord’ when we prevent people from harming themselves.  But Christians, and others, are often not bold enough to attempt this directly.  So we enlist the government to help us with this apparently noble project.

My Dad and his generation had a label for those who engaged in this kind of project.  He called them ‘do-gooders’ – and in spite of the word ‘good’ this was no compliment!

But think of all the very tenuous assumptions that are being made when one person decides to force someone else not to ‘harm himself.’

First of all, very few of the things are quickly or certainly self-destructive.  Often with such things, it is all a matter of dosage.  We all need some salt.  Too much does appear to gradually impair the health of some, but ‘too much’ can vary wildly between individuals.  So even the claim ‘you are eating too much salt’ is very relative to the individual you are addressing.

Consider also that many of the things most of us do everyday can be, to some degree, dangerous for us.  Driving a car is dangerous, using electricity is dangerous, even walking in the sunlight can be dangerous.  Whenever we do almost anything we are taking a calculated risk.  Sometimes the odds are very much in our favor, but many things fall ‘on the margin’ so to speak.  And even the evaluation of what is ‘safe’, what is ‘on the margin’, and what is ‘dangerous’ is a very personal and subjective evaluation.  By what moral right can any one person or group of people make that evaluation for someone else?

The ‘let’s stop this poor fool from harming himself’ attitude becomes the excuse for tyranny from sometimes well-meaning people who have not thought through the matter.  Suppose your neighbor is sensitive to, and wildly over-indulging in, a diet high in trans fat.  Most people, especially Christian people, would never march over with a loaded gun, remove the neighbor’s supply of trans fat, and threaten him with more force if he seeks a new supply.  But many of those same people will support the tyrannical government of New York City as it attempts to do the same thing.

And as many have pointed out recently, this is all connected to governments paying our medical bills.  Once governments pay medical bills (or it is assumed that they should) there is a never end-excuse for governments to attempt to reduce health risks as close to zero as possible.  This, of course, requires that government have the power to dictate the most intimate details of every individual life.  And that, of course, is the very definition of tyranny.

Salt consumption regulations are far from trivial.  Because if something that subjective and personal is rightly the domain of government, then nothing is off-limits to government.  And if nothing is off-limits to the government, then the government has become god and political liberty has ceased to exist.

People will sometime decide to engage in risky behavior.  When bad consequences ensue, they must deal with them.  But if you are not free to do that, you are no longer a human being, but a cog in the machine of the state.  And if you are not willing to allow others that freedom, no matter how well-intentioned you might be, you are a tyrant.

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