Column by Michael Kleen.
Exclusive to STR
Back in November 2010, the City of San Francisco effectively banned Happy Meals by requiring any meals that included toys to meet strict nutritional guidelines. The ordinance was criticized and lampooned by many, including the Daily Show . Now, the self-appointed protectors of consumer health are at it again. This time, Monet Parham, a mother of two who is represented by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is suing McDonald’s for allegedly violating California consumer protection laws by including toys with their Happy Meals. With one victory under their belts, it seems that these so-called “consumer advocates” have redoubled their efforts to control what we can buy at the lunch counter.
Read some of the articles about McDonald’s battle with the Center for Science in the Public Interest and you may come away with the impression that the restaurant chain is like the witch in the story of Hansel and Gretel, tempting children into their restaurants and fattening them up for a life afflicted by diabetes and heart disease. In a recent article at Salon.com , Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote, “The practice of luring families to make suspect choices based on convenience, the promise of a new plastic animal, youthful whining, and parental guilt is so deeply embedded in our culture, so much a part of childhood, that the idea it could ever change seems almost unfathomable.” [Emphasis added]
Williams argues that by using toys as an incentive to buy Happy Meals, McDonald’s is engaging in “predatory practices” that pit children against parents in a battle of wills. These “tantalizing treats” “insidiously” compel your children to whine and cry until you give in and purchase the “nutritionally vacant meal.” At one point, Williams even suggests these toys are like past uses of cartoons to market cigarettes, and will therefore soon be considered just as irresponsible. After all, in her mind, rising rates of obesity and diabetes among children make Happy Meals just as dangerous as cigarettes.
Conspicuously absent from this argument is any discussion about the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, which is freely chosen by millions of Americans and American families. It is easy to blame fast food for rising rates of heart disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and childhood diabetes, but the fact remains that diet, exercise, habits (such as smoking), and genetics have a complex relationship  in determining how likely a person is to develop any of those conditions. Therefore, from the Statist point of view, it would make just as much sense to ban Happy Meals as it would to set aside a mandatory 16 minutes a day for exercise. Restricting options, however, is much easier than trying to make everyone start doing jumping jacks .
The issue, then, is not whether abstaining from junk food would make you healthier, or whether you should exercise more, but whether it is appropriate for a state or city to make those decisions for you or your children. I too am concerned about the negative effects of consumerism, inactivity, and excess, but as an individualist, I believe that society would be better off in the long run if each individual were free to decide what proportion of junk food and exercise to include in his or her daily life.
“Freedom of choice and responsible regulation can coexist just fine,” writes Mary Elizabeth Williams, and if the regulation in question wasn’t eliminating a choice, she might have a leg to stand on. However, laws banning Happy Meals do take away a choice; they are just a choice that advocates of said regulation do not support. In the minds of groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, consumers should only be allowed to make “good” choices, that is, choices of which the men and women at the Center for Science in the Public Interest approve.
That is not really freedom of choice at all, however, because freedom of choice entails the ability to choose A or not A, B or not B, B and not A, or A and not B. All options are not equal, of course, but the freedom lies in the fact that the consumer can make up his or her own mind about what he or she wants to eat or wants to feed to his or her own children. It is not for the State of California, the City of San Francisco, Mary Elizabeth Williams, or the Center for Science in the Public Interest to make that decision for them.