Big government happens slowly

Published on Sunday, 7 July 2013 23:41 - Written by

That’s the thing about big government — it sneaks up on you. It’s rare that government takes a big bite of the economy (the Affordable Care Act’s passage in 2010 is an exception, but even its implementation has been gradual).

Mostly, big government happens without much fanfare and often with our consent. That’s because it happens in little, logical ways that seem to make sense.

One example is food labeling in restaurants.

“The Food and Drug Administration is completing new regulations for adding calorie labeling on restaurant menus, mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” the Bloomberg news service reports. “The FDA’s menu-labeling proposal would require, for example, pizza-delivery restaurants to label in-store menu boards with calorie information, even though the vast majority of orders are placed by phone or over the Internet.”

It gets worse for restaurants that give customers lots of choices.

“Customizable offerings — salads and sandwiches, for instance — can be configured in innumerable variations, complicating the task of labeling menu boards in stores,” Bloomberg explains. “To address this, the FDA has proposed the use of calorie ranges setting lower and upper bounds for all possible variations of a particular order. The problem: The ranges can be so wide — conceivably as much as 2,000 calories in the case of a pizza — that they are useless in providing consumers with helpful information.”

Everyone wants consumers to have good information. And with obesity a real public health problem in America, we all want people making better choices on what they eat.

But are big government solutions the best way to achieve this?

No. Two researchers at George Mason University, Michael Marlow and Sherzod Abdukadirov, say government can do more harm than good.

“Despite the myriad of studies showing American obesity is increasing, research does not clearly support that government can solve this complex problem,” the researchers say. “And yet, government solutions that provide information the public already knows — weight gain occurs when we eat too much and exercise too little — have been the focus to eliminate this epidemic. Not only is this method not solving the problem, we may actually be increasing the social stigma associated with weight gain.”

After New York City passed a law mandating calorie counts on menus, diners failed to respond to the “nudge” and their eating habits didn’t change.

On the other hand, free market principles seem to work better.

“Unlike government policies, weight loss products and ideas are tested by consumers and failures are replaced by products that really help people control their weight,” the researchers note. “Consumers will not continue to buy products that don’t work.”

Big government actions seem appealing because they promise big solutions to societal problems. But with most problems — like obesity — real solutions happen at the individual level.

And meanwhile, we accept more and more encroachment in our personal lives by government. The steps seem small and benign at first. But soon, government is making our important decisions for us.