The ongoing debate at Cato Unbound on soft paternalism has focused a lot on the issue of slippery slopes. There are two directions one can slide down a slippery slope: an increasing scope of paternalism, and an increasing degree of paternalism. The danger of the former is captured in Glen Whitman’s example of smoking. First they banned it on airplanes, then it was bars and restaurants, and now it is increasingly in all public places.

The other slippery slope occurs when the presence of paternalism in area A makes it more likely in area B. This type of slippery slope is evident in the spread of regulation from sugar, which is becoming more popular, to salt, which is on the horizon:

Citing 40 years of failed efforts to voluntarily reduce the amount of salt in food, an advisory panel Tuesday recommended that the government regulate sodium for the first time… The proposals outlined by the Institute of Medicine envision step-by-step efforts that would both ratchet back Americans’ desire for salt and mandate the maximum amount that could be added to various types of foods.

The proposed policy is for the FDA to begin setting a gradually decreasing maximum amount of sodium that could be legally added to foods and beverages. The level of regulation and control of individual choices that proponents sound comfortable with is really ridiculous to me:

“It must be done very thoughtfully,” said panel chair Henney, a former FDA commissioner and now a medical professor at the University of Cincinnati. Pickles, for instance, “are very high in salt content but are not eaten that often,” she said, “so what you get with pickles might be quite different than something that is eaten more frequently, like bread, or cereal.”

Can I please spend a month with this woman first, checking the label of everything she eats and granting or denying her permission to eat it? Seriously though, if this is not evidence that there is a slippery slope out there begging for us to slide down it, then I don’t know what is.

I hope that most people would consider the letting the FDA deciding how much salt we can have an egregious encroachment into personal freedom, but I fear that the growing presence of sugar taxes has warmed people up for this. The general unpopularity of the proposed Philadelphia sugary drink tax, however, does provide me with some optimism.

Overall, I’m really curious to see what the next absurd thing will be that someone tries regulate. Food spiciness? Temperature? How many people suffer from a burned mouth every year? It’s clearly market failure and information problem, as well as evidence of consumer irrationality and potentially time varying preferences, as surely nobody would choose to burn their mouths. And can we do something about the scourge of brain freeze the nation is facing? I’d like to see a minimum temperature and size of milk shakes. Or maybe we can just provide a “nudge” by mandating narrower straws. Or on the more deadly side, how many people are killed by tired drivers every year? Can we get a mandatory nap-time policy to fix this?

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