By Nathaniel Counts
If, out of concern for public health, the government banned potato chips today, a lot of people would get very angry. Only some of these people would be angry because they missed potato chips. For most it would be the principle of the thing – the government should not interfere with our autonomy to eat whatever we want, as long as it does not harm others, and some days this will include potato chips. I would posit that the autonomy at issue here is a narrow understanding of autonomy, and one that we should be suspicious of.
Imagine yourself in the biggest Costco in the world. It has every food in existence and they are all placed equidistant from you, and you may survey the scene and choose whatever food you most desire and then eat it. This would be true autonomy. The world we live in, however, is deeply constrained and we should question how meaningful our autonomy is.
In reality, every time someone who came to the Costco before you made a purchase, the store owners moved the product a little bit closer to you, and manufacturers began shipping more variants of it. The decisions that determined the composition of your commercial world were made over hundreds of years by individuals with no understanding of health – diet and exercise, hypertension and heat disease all being foreign concepts until recently. Today potato chips, in all their variety, take up quite a lot of shelf space, and healthful foods are hard to come by.
Individuals might argue that they are making a legitimate tradeoff – health for pleasure – in buying the potato chips. Some may be, but I suspect most are buying potato chips simply because it is there and they would choose health if they were truly making rational decisions. Even if it is not a legitimate tradeoff, preserving autonomy could still be its own sort of good. It is not clear to me why allowing previous consumer choice control our decisions is preserving autonomy.
Let us compare two regimes. In the first, the government regulates the available food to ensure that healthful choices are available and promoted. In the second, every individual, past and present, votes on what choices should be available and stores stock these (we assume that food manufacturers are mostly agnostic as to which foods they produce – they have no vested interest in pushing potato chips over sweet potatoes, aside from profit margins). We live in this second regime. It may have a democratic feel to it, but it is still majoritarian control over your autonomy, and indeed mostly the dead controlling the living. The first only feels like more interference with autonomy because it is centrally planned, but it seems absurd to reject intelligent planning over the effects of unintentional and piecemeal change simply because it is not planned, when everyone would be better off with the former.
If individuals were to actually exercise their autonomy, given what we know now about health, standing inside of the infinite Costco, individuals may actually consistently choose healthier food, or at least different food. The free market does not give you what you most want in the world per se, if gives you what other people think you want, or what other people feel like giving you. If potato chips were something found in the state of nature and the government was denying you access, the claim about limiting autonomy would make some sort of sense, but as it stands now, it seems confused to me.