Happy Meal Ban and Classical Liberalism

Dear Professor Conway,

Hello. My name is Jason Chen and I am an American who is interested in taking the MA Philosophy, Politics and Environmental Issues program at the University of Essex. I am extremely interested in political philosophy so I took the liberty of reading your book on classical liberalism which I found extremely interesting. My support for a liberal polity is pretty much decided in terms of non-economic issues but there are always cases which test my fundamental beliefs in it.

For example, San Francisco recently passed a controversial law “to set nutritional standards for restaurant food sold accompanied by toys or other youth focused incentive items. ” This action was taken in response to the growing problem of childhood obesity, which is, according to the lawmakers, “of epidemic proportions.” You mention in your book that under classical liberalism, the government would have the legitimate right to regulate pollution because it harms other people. I completely agree with this statement. However, the situation is extremely complicated in the case of fast food because on the one hand, the food is definitely harming people, but on the other hand, parents should be the ones to decide what their children eat.

This issue may be boiled down to liberty vs. systemic risk. I think it is reasonable to say that the government has a vested interest in its citizens health, but nevertheless, doesn't the responsibility fall on the parents? Shouldn't parents have the freedom to buy happy meals if they so choose? My initial response is yes, but the problem is growing. Childhood obesity is on the rise. It would seem that parents are not being responsible. Is it OK for children to suffer from obesity because of their parents actions or lack of action? Should the city just sit back and watch its residents become fat, unhealthy and eventually die early?

Deciding whether or not the government can legitimately intervene becomes even more complicated when we take into consideration that restaurants use toys to lure children to eat the unhealthy food. Restaurants understand, as we all do, that children are ignorant when it comes to what they should or should not eat and we also understand that children will nag their parents until they get what they want. In fact, restaurants and other companies partly rely on what is called the “nagging factor.” So in essence, we see restaurants trying to take advantage of children's naivety and nagging power to make money. Having said that, there must be other ways the government can dissuade parents from buying unhealthy food, but what way specifically I do not know.

What do you think about this? Is the systemic risk great enough to warrant government action?

I have attached a copy of the law in this email just in case you would like to take a look at it. It is 12 pages long, but the first half is just explaining the findings of obesity. Long story short, the city is not banning happy meals, but rather is forcing restaurants to make their happy meals healthier.