Paternalism: it's what's for lunch!

Julian Sanchez makes a sensible observation about the school vending machine debate currently occupying several left wing blogs, such as that of colleague Matthew Yglesias:

I also think they're misunderstanding Dan Mitchell's objection—which, in fairness, may be because the headline reference to the "nanny state" in the headline is a bit of a red herring. I think the point is that the content of school lunch menus, while both important and fit for government determination, is not really a federal issue. The momentous question of whether the cafeteria at PS 23 serves Coke or Twinkies can probably be left to the bright lights of the state legislatures—maybe even the local school board.

But hey, since this apparently is a federal question, we may as well elevate the rhetoric to match. Scale disagreements of this kind (at least, assuming Matt or Ezra really do want to insist that the decision take place at the federal level) say something about how seriously you take value pluralism. If you think it's obvious that there's an Objectively Correct Answer to any question, and that we know it—should little Bobby be allowed candy, or kept to a strict wheat germ regimen?—then allowing local variation just means giving the rubes a chance to fuck it up. If you think there are genuinely different and valid value weightings yielding different tradeoffs, or opportunities to learn from variety and experimentation, you're more sanguine about decentralization.

Of course, sometimes the values are large enough and the lessons of experience clear enough that I, too, opt against letting the rubes fuck it up: free expression, equality under the law, due process. But I'm thinking school lunches aren't quite up there.

Matt Zeitlin responds:

While I think that some decisions should be more local, the question of what’s in school lunches requires looking at the status quo situation. And in the status quo, schools are selling crappy food through vending machines, snack bars and “a la carte food lines.” And they aren’t doing anything to change it. Moreover, the federal government is already heavily involved in school food , because cafeteria food programs already need to meet Department of Agriculture nutrition requirements. So there’s a trade-off, either we can continue with certain health standards being applied in a piecemeal manner across the country, depending on the attitudes of local school boards and states, or we can just make the standards stricter now, for everyone. I guess one of the things that makes me a liberal as opposed to a libertarian is that I prefer the latter and don’t really see what’s so offensive about a centralized dictate — especially as opposed to the alternative.

For some reason, this puts me in mind of the discussions one hears about birth control and child labor in the developing world: to wit, there seems to be an assumption that people in far off places, particularly ones with funny religions and/or skin colors, do not have children for the same reasons that the right-thinking folks around here do. Because they seem to regard their children as some sort of undifferentiated herd animals, rather than loving the heck out of those adorable little tykes, we need to step in and make some decisions about how they should go about this reproduction business.

The libertarian approach is to assume that those people probably feel the same way about their kids that you do about yours, and that seemingly inexplicable behavior, such as sending a child to knot rugs in a rundown factory building, probably has some deeper motivation than "Why the hell not?" And indeed, it turns out that child labor is almost invariably a result of severe familial economic distress, and that the first thing that families "purchase" as soon as they get a smidgen of economic security is their childrens' retirement from the labor force. That's why laws outlawing child labor, in areas where child labor is actually common, seem to result in a lot of dead children, or children shifted to worse labor than knotting rugs, such as the unregulated sex trade.

So I assume, too, that the people on school boards throughout the country are probably mostly people who have a more than passing interest in producing a fine, healthy crop of future Americans. I therefore ask myself, "Why are all these people installing vending machines in schools?" My admittedly sketchy research indicates that the answer is not "Because they love PepsiCo and obesity, and hate kids!" Rather, they seem to be afraid that the kids will just go off the school grounds and stuff themselves with even crappier food at fast food restaurants--or in the case of schools that are providing a lot of free breakfasts and lunches, that the kids will reject healthier options and become malnourished. Nor is this an insane fear, since schools that ban vending and unhealthy lunch options seem to often end up with widespread civil disobedience. And of course, if the kids are going to eat crap anyway, the schools figure they might as well sell them the crap at more reasonable prices while taking a small cut.

As far as I know, there is no actual evidence that the meals served on school grounds have any impact on child obesity or other health problems. In addition, I note that the federalism we currently have--the Department of Agriculture's various interventions--are one of the reasons that school lunches are such crap, since of course the Department of Agriculture's nutrition guidelines and other programs often sacrifice dietary soundness in favor of appeasing the various farm lobbies. Like Julian, I see no reason to federalize the nation's cafeterias.