California is abuzz this week about matters of public health. Like many other news outlets, the Orange County Register editorialized against the state’s recent Crisco prohibition, citing economist Walter Williams’ comments on a similar ban in New York City last year:
They’ve started out with a small target — a ban on restaurant use of trans fats. … If banning a fat that’s only 2 percent of our daily caloric intake is wonderful, why not ban saturated fats, the intake of which is much higher? Then there’s the size of restaurant servings. Instead of a law simply requiring restaurants to label the calories in a meal, there will be laws setting a legal limit on portions.
Williams makes an excellent point. But forget, for a moment, about outlawing trans fats. Even forget about just curbing serving sizes. Lawmakers seem to have lost interest in merely restricting our choices on restaurant menus. Now, they’re trying to limit our choice of restaurants instead.
The Los Angeles City Council voted this week to ban “fast food” restaurants from certain neighborhoods, and support for this kind of “health zoning” is rapidly surfacing in other major cities too. Overzealous health officials seem frightfully unaware that, as William Saletan of Slate magazine explained, “The war on fat has just crossed a major red line.”
There’s a vital lesson hidden in all of this. Small regulations here (mandating calorie counts) and there (outlawing fois gras) may seem insignificant. But LA’s “fast food” ban shows the process by which those little changes ultimately amount to a chokehold on individual freedom. So while obesity activists commonly employ fear and turpitude to advance their draconian agenda, their biggest successes are often the result of simple indifference.
Policies like soda taxes, menu labels, and ingredient regulation seldom provoke public outrage — at least not right away. These things accumulate ingredient by ingredient, drip by drip, freedom by freedom.