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Eating crap and the meaning of left libertarianism

In 2004, John Reid, Health Minister John Reid  famously defended the right of the working class to have a smoke:

All I say is be careful, please be careful that we don’t patronise people. As my mother would put it, people from those lower socio-economic categories have very few pleasures in life and one of them they regard as smoking.

He was, of course, roundly cricticised for what was portrayed by the opposition at the time as a pro-smoking message, and he probably didn’t put it as well as he might have done, but he was right; if you want people to quit smoking, it might be better to start by making sure they have access to other, healthier forms of pleasure, was the message that got drowned out.

The current Labour health incumbent, Andy Burnham apparently has a different view on things that are bad for you.  He’s consulting on a ban on the most sugary breakfast cereals.

Coincidentally, a public health research article has just come across my desk which suggests that there might be much more effective ways of improving children’s breakfasts.   Nicole Larson et al., in a 10 year longitudinal study of young Americans, found that getting families to eat meals together does the trick, and does it long-term:

[A]nalyses indicated that having more frequent family meals during adolescence longitudinally predicted a higher frequency of shared meals in young adulthood; this relationship was found to be independent of associations between shared meal frequency and sociodemographic characteristics of young adults, including gender, age, race, employment status, household composition and parental status. In addition, the results showed that a higher frequency of shared mealtimes in young adulthood was related to greater intakes of some healthful foods and nutrients of public health concern. Together, the 10-year longitudinal and cross-sectional findings emphasize the potential importance of establishing shared meal patterns with one’s family during adolescence and supporting young adults in having more frequent shared meals in order to help them get closer to meeting national dietary recommendations.

Of course, family meals are no silver obesity bullet.  The report makes it clear that, even those in the group that did eat with family generally failed to meet healthy nutritional standards.  And this is just one study, in a country with distinctly different approaches to eating, so what look like internally valid statistically robust findings in the study may lack external validity.

Nevertheless, what does seem pretty obvious from this and other studies (e.g. this one from Australia on the relationship between watching the telly and eating crap) is that there are ways in which diets can be improved, without resorting to reducing choice in what people can buy, but instead by focusing on the wider environmental and social conditions within which eating choices are made, and actively seeking to increase choice. No-one’s forcing Americans to eat more healthily, but they appear to do want to do so if they’re given that option in accessible form, so logic suggests that if you give more American families the option to eat together e.g. by reducing working hours, or freeing up the freeways so that people can get to work quicker, more Americans will eat choose to eat more healthily, together with their families.  Likewise, give Australian kids something to do other  than watch telly and they may eat less crap.

What all this suggests to me is that at least some socialists, when faced with social problems, are asking the wrong question.  They’re asking themselves: “what can we do to control the problem?” rather than “What additional choices can we give to people, which will make the problem go away?”*.   Perhaps, though, those who style themselves as left libertarians are also in a muddle.  Instead of resorting to appeals to negative liberty – the state should leave people alone and let them kill themselves and their kids if they want to – we should be focusing more rigorously on positive freedoms.  If people want to hamburger themselves to death, that’s fine, but let’s give them loads of other choices and then they might not want to.

And as with hamburgers, so with booze.

* It strikes me that the impulse to control a problem rather than ‘uncontrol’ it away finds its most dangerous expression in the growing ‘evidenced-based policy’ campaign being headed up by all-round-good-guy-civil-liberties-defender Ben Goldacre, in association with the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights team.  Betweem them, they have produced a convincing story about how society would be much better off if all social problem interventions were assessed through Randomised Control Trial methodology developed by the biomedical sciences.  This is all very well, but the promotion of such scientific rigour overlooks the need, in order to fit the method, to atomises problems and interventions in a way which embeds garbage can model social policy practice.  Ultimately, a problem and intervention focus diminishes the power of people to make their problems go away, and ehnances the power of the state to make interchagebalbe those problems and the peope who have them.   But that’s a longer blog.

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