by Richard Mason - Research Fellow at Consumer Choice Center
I’m probably about to lose a fair bit of my rep with the classical liberal community: I don’t necessarily see it as an issue for the state to take an interest in public health. If we accept the classical Smithian idea of a state limited to three simple roles (namely the provision of defense, justice, and basic public goods), then certainly a government action to prevent the spread of deadly diseases can be justified, so long as that action does not infringe on basic freedoms.
There is a crucial defining point in this argument for state interest in public health; the diseases must be able to spread, i.e. they must be communicable. Since none (or, at least, very few) would consent to being infected with a potentially fatal illness, nor would they necessarily even know about it, or how to prevent it, there is room here for some kind of measure against its spread.
Sadly, however, this is not the role the government takes when it comes to public health. Rather than focusing on the fight against communicable disease, the state instead decides to clamp down on personal choice and bodily autonomy.
Under the banner of public health, the UK government has long seen it appropriate to place further and further restrictions on what we can and can’t eat, drink, or smoke. We are deemed unable and unfit to make these decisions for ourselves, or to fully grasp the damage certain goods do to our bodies.
We have progressed so far down this path that the UK now boasts the second least-free nanny state in Europe, beaten out only by Finland for laws, restrictions, and sin-taxes on tobacco, alcohol, and other such goods. Sadly, this shows no signs of reversing any time soon.
The most recent nail hammered into the coffin of British consumer choice is the proposal to ban ‘freakshakes’, milkshakes stuffed and adorned with chocolates, cakes, marshmallows, sauces, and other goodies that significantly ram-up the treat-drink’s calorie and sugar content.
Unlike the more traditional targets of paternalism, such as tobacco or alcohol, the proposed ban on freakshakes cannot be seen as anything other than an attack on personal choice. There are no externalities on anybody but the consumer themselves in this case; freakshakes don’t bring with them any secondhand-smoke or drunken violence. The only person such a ban could possibly be seeking to protect is the person drinking it.
For an adult, this is pretty inexcusable. We in the UK enjoy the right to bodily autonomy, and thus must enjoy the freedom to take as much care or to do as much damage to our own bodies as we see fit. I think most would agree that to tell a grown person they can’t drink a litre of milkshake topped with brownies, marshmallows and drenched in chocolate sauce, is a pretty hefty overreach into our personal liberties.
Those behind the proposal, however, focus more on the effects of overconsumption of sugar on children, and justify the idea of a ban this way instead. Naturally, a child is at the whims of the his or her parents for what they consume, and are therefore far less able to make decisions over their own bodily autonomy.
Graham MacGregor, Chairman of the group behind the calls for a ban Action on Sugar, argues thusly:
“These very high calorie drinks, if consumed on a daily basis, would result in children becoming obese and suffering from tooth decay - that is not acceptable.”
This immediately should set off some red flags about the argument to ban freakshakes; who exactly is going to be consuming them on a daily basis? Who is able to look at something like this and believe it to be an healthy part of a child’s daily diet?
To blame the restaurants and cafes serving these desserts for any child who became obese from consuming them would be to deflect any responsibility from the parents who buy them. The arguments to ban freakshakes seem to be another case of punishing the majority for the actions of a small group of irresponsible parents.
We can’t continue down this path of relinquishing all responsibility for our children’s and our own health to the state. In doing so, we effectively penalise the bulk of society, and deny them their right to make decisions about their own bodies, for the actions of an irresponsible few.
Let’s take the focus of public health away from the bad decisions made by individuals, and back on the stuff that matters, like preventing communicable diseases. Consumer choice and bodily autonomy is not the realm of state meddling.