Is San Francisco's Happy Meal Ban Too Paternalistic?

Posted by Andrew Price


The economist Adam Ozimek is worried that San Francisco's ban on Happy Meals (technically it's a ban on including a toy with a meal that has more than 600 calories, with more than 35 percent of those calories coming from fat) puts us further down the slippery slope to pernicious paternalism:

Well folks, we’ve reached a new slope bottom: San Francisco has banned the McDonalds Happy Meal.

Since paternalism defenders will surely claim this is “just reasonable policy, and if there is a slippery slope then where could we possibly slide to next?”, let me repeat what I wrote awhile ago:

I think it would be useful to for critics of the slippery slope theory of paternalism to demarcate now what future policies would constitute evidence that they are wrong, because my guess is the point of demarcation will move right along down the slope with policy. Several years ago many of todays critics of slippery slope theory would have said that an attempt to regulate salt would constitute evidence. But now, farther down the slope, salt regulation is just sensible policy.

The Economist's Democracy in America blog disagrees:

Here's the thing: the "paternalism" charge carries a lot less force when used against policies specifically related to children. Every weekday America's ruling regime confines tens of millions of its citizens in indoctrination camps where they're required to memorise the contents of government-approved texts. But when the citizens in question are under 16 I actually find this practice pretty laudable. And I think the fashion in which I treat my own kids could be described as extremely paternalistic.

Indeed. Pater, after all, is Latin for father.

In general, I think San Francisco was right to ban Happy Meals, and I'm not worried about the slippery slope.

The libertarian problem with this kind of policy is, I presume, that it encroaches on our freedoms (both McDonalds' freedom to sell Happy Meals and consumers' freedom to buy them). But one man's freedom is another's manipulation. If you think of the Happy Meal toy as a marketing ploy, designed to skew kids' preferences—which, after all, it is—maybe we're freer without it. There are regulations that prevent the use of subliminal messaging in TV and radio ads. Do those regulations compromise freedom or provide us the protection to make decisions without interference?

Second, the simple fact is that childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years. That trend has real consequences for our economic, physical, and mental health. Policies that help combat those tangible costs seem worth pursuing, even if they do compromise some nice-to-have abstract ideal of freedom.

And finally, even if the Happy Meal ban is a case of harmful paternalism, the slope doesn't seem all that slippery to me. There are vigorous debates when policies like this get proposed, and it's hardly as though San Francisco's Happy Meal ban is sweeping the nation, or inspiring a blanket french fry ban. This slope is flatish and bumpy at best.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user Jason Lam