I’ve recently challenged paternalism supporters to tell me, if the most recent headline paternalism that bans Happy Meals in San Francisco does not constitute taking us down the slippery slope, then what would? Matt Steinglass at the Economist has responded to this challenge by accepting it’s legitimacy, and reversing it, but not answering it. Granted, speculating what people will decide the government should crack down on next is a tricky game. I mean who would have guessed that Happy Meals were on the chopping block? But from the logic of this ban, we can see a wide range of policies the future might hold.

First, lets look at the logic of this policy. Here is how Steinglass makes the case:

Now, not every parent objects to their children eating unhealthy fast food. But I do, and there are a lot of other parents like me, especially in places like San Francisco. For such parents, the Happy Meal represents an effort by some adults to profitably exploit and exacerbate the tensions in other adults’ parent-child relations over food.

So what are other policies by which some adults profitably exploit and exacerbate the tensions in other adults’ parent-child relations over food?

First note that we don’t need a one-to-one relationship between that which is attracting the children in the first place -in this case a toy- and something that is unhealthy -in this case unhealthy food. Matt can actually get a Happy Meal with chicken McNuggets, 1% milk, and slices of apple with low-far caramel dip. In fact, at 390 calories, 32% of which come from fat, McDonalds will be able to sell this food with the toy after the ban, which only prevents Happy Meals with more than 600 calories and 35% of the calories from fat. So it’s not like the only way for Matt to get this toy for his kids is to buy them the “cheap Jumbo McFattyburger”. McDonald’s has given them a relatively healthy option that allows parents to cave into their children on the toy but not on lunch. What more do you want parents? Must we hold your hand the whole way through raising your children, cordoning off everything you don’t have the will to tell them they can’t have?

Given the nature of the justifications for this policy -protecting parents from having to tell their kids no- what would be logical extensions of it?

Well without leaving McDonalds there’s some obvious ones. For one thing, the playland probably draws kids as often as the toys do. So new McDonalds could be banned from being built with playlands. Along the same lines,  fast food restaurants could be banned from being near places where children play in the first place, like parks and schools. I know this one has been called for before, and I’m not sure, but it may even be in affect in some places.

Making fast food less attractive may protect parents when they happen to be near a McDonalds with their kids, but it doesn’t protect them from having McDonalds reach out to children in the first place and getting it into their heads that their food and toys are awesome. If you’re going to stop this problem, it must be at the root. One way to do this is to ban advertising of fast food targeted at children. This would probably start with children specific magazines and TV shows, but move to a general ban.

However, these policies only target fast food, and we know that kids beg for unhealthy food all over the place, not just there. So let’s look at the grocery store.

One obvious example is banning candy from checkout lines. Sure many stores have aisles that are candy free for just this purpose, but McDonalds has a healthy lunch option as well.

Another thing that could be done is to counteract the behavioral economics and marketing used by grocery stores and food companies to target children. Unhealthy food that children like, for instance sugary cereals, could be required to be placed on top shelves where it’s harder for children to see and reach for them. More extreme than this would be to ban any cartoon characters from unhealthy food containers. I’m pretty sure many people would take a bullet for Cap’n Crunch and those elves from Rice Crispies, so the bar for unhealthy would be set pretty high… at first.

Eventually there could be a regulatory agency that has to approve all foods to ensure that no behavioral economics or marketing wizardry draws children to it whatsoever.

In addition to how stuff is sold, anything that is enumerated on a nutrition label could be regulated. We know that portion size is a problem, so maximum portion sizes could be set. Also you might also see maximum calories for single serving foods like hot pockets and candy bars.

In order to prevent an outcry from adults there may be a two-track regulation where food is categorized either as “mostly for adults” or “mostly for children”. Foods that are “mostly for children” will be regulated more strictly and on many dimensions, while “mostly for adults” remain freer … at first. Eventually all foods could fall to the more draconian regulations as two-track regulation fails because parents will just buy unhealthy “mostly for adults” food for their children.

If you think setting the maximum number of calories and other nutritional measures for every kind of food seems absurd then you should read the Institute of Medicine report on salt regulations, which pretty much suggests doing this this for sodium content.

Many of these suggestions probably seem so extreme as to be unbelievable. But they seem extreme from the vantage point of where we are on the slippery slope. The farther down we go and the more accustomed we become to these sorts of things then the less and less radical the currently extreme examples will seem. I’m not predicting all of these will happen everywhere, but some of these, or things like these, will be pushed for, and some of them will be put into place.

My question to paternalism supporters is which of these things would be ok with you? And by what basis do you reject them but approve the Happy Meal regulations? To those on the fence about paternalism, or ok with the happy meal ban but wary of more strict regulations, pay attention to the answer your paternalism allies give to these questions; as you may someday find yourself on the other end of this argument.

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