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Paternalism: You Know, For Kids!

December 4th, 2007 · 11 Comments

Ezra and Ygz are right, of course, that a “nanny state” isn’t all that offensive when the people being nannied are kids. There’s such a thing as overprotecting even children, but obviously when kids are in public schools, “the government” at some level is going to decide what food options are available to those kids, and I can’t see any good reason why they shouldn’t decide to make them healthy options. No beef there.

But I also think they’re misunderstanding Dan Mitchell’s objection—which, in fairness, may be because the 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.

Update: So, Matt is convinced nobody actually cares about higher-order or procedural principles like federalism independent of a desire to enforce a particular outcome. (Several of my leftish friends seem to harbor this view; make of that what you will.) So, for what it’s worth, I really don’t have anything against mandating healthier food in school. If I were on a school board or state legislature, I would vote for this bill. I’m genuinely just OK with the possibility that the people two towns over would, for whatever reason, make a different decision.

Tags: Nannyism



11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 R. Totale // Dec 4, 2007 at 2:31 pm

    which, in fairness, may be because the headline reference to the “nanny state” in the headline is a bit of a red herring

    I have nothing of interest to add, other than you might want to remove one of the “headline”‘s in that sentence.

  • 2 Grant Gould // Dec 4, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    If you think it’s obvious that there’s an Objectively Correct Answer to any question, and that we know it […] then allowing local variation just means giving the rubes a chance to fuck it up.

    So basically we’re dealing with left-wing Randroids here?

  • 3 Larry M // Dec 4, 2007 at 6:29 pm

    In fairness, the Federalism point isn’t made THAT clearly in the text either. I mean, it is at one level, in the sense that his point is a constitutional one, specifically regarding the powers granted to the U.S. congress. But, to the extent that there is any clue as to why he disagrees with the policy as a matter of substance, it’s the headline. There just isn’t any discussion, even in a cursory manner, of the federalism issue AS POLICY.

    Which isn’t to say that you are wrong, but merely that you can’t blame Mathew and Ezra for missing an argument that Mitchell didn’t make. They are not misunderstanding Mitchell’s objection, or, if they are, the fault is Mitchell’s, who didn’t make it clearly at all.

  • 4 Greg N. // Dec 4, 2007 at 8:48 pm

    Julian (and others),

    I’m interested to see whether you think Darwinism falls under the ‘fuck it up’ category, or ‘variety and experimentation’ category. Framed as “education,” it might be better suited for the latter. But framed as “science,” it’s clearly the former.


  • 5 Jadagul // Dec 5, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    Greg N: Well, I think that’s one of the best arguments for school choice: let parents send their kids to schools teaching whatever damn fool thing they want. Or, at least, whatever I-think-it’s-damn-fool thing; I don’t claim omniscience or infallibility. In the current system…well, this is what makes me a principled libertarian and federalist. Having the government involved in this specific case, making this specific intervention, might lead to a situation I prefer. But I understand that the cost of keeping the government out of places I don’t want it, and of keeping it from enforcing bad decisions, is that sometimes people will do things I don’t like.

    Or, in other words, I’m willing to accept the lack of mandate that evolution be taught in exchange for the knowledge that no one will ever mandate it not be taught. I’d rather have a world where some places screw up than a world where there’s a decent chance of everyone being screwed at once.

  • 6 Anonymous // Dec 5, 2007 at 5:15 pm


    This is actually one place where I see the argument for school choice break down. We now know that more Americans believe in the devil than recognize the truth of Darwinian evolution. As such, we can be sure that some significant subset of the population would prefer to send their kids to a school where Darwin is ignored (presumably along with the rest of biology), but where discussions of how best to avoid Satan’s tricks would be part of the curriculum.

    That, whatever else you think of it, would be “fucking it up.” One of the reasons to support school choice is because there is value in decentralization and experimentation, and because values aren’t universally shared. But some things are true, and some are false, and if we know that lots of states and lots of parents would make objectively stupid decisions about their kids’ educations, then that seems like a weakness in the school choice argument.

  • 7 Greg N. // Dec 5, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    Sorry, that “anonymous” comment was mine. Don’t know what happened there. I didn’t mean to pull a John Lott.

  • 8 Julian Elson // Dec 5, 2007 at 10:02 pm

    I’m surprised by your update. Do you really believe that the government — at the state or local level or not — should directly administer schools at all?

  • 9 Consumatopia // Dec 6, 2007 at 12:44 am

    You can say that school lunches aren’t important enough for a federal mandate, but I would say they aren’t important enough for pluralism. My take on school lunches is not about how much I value pluralism, but how much I value pluralism in school lunches specifically. Which isn’t very much at all. The lessons of past experience are sufficiently clear that whatever we have to learn from encouraging kids to consume more glucose is not at all worth the cost.

  • 10 Julian Sanchez // Dec 6, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    Other Julian:
    Not really, but America has not yet seen fit to let me redesign its education system, so I’m working with what we’ve got.

  • 11 Dr. Zeuss // Dec 10, 2007 at 2:08 am

    “If you think it’s obvious that there’s an Objectively Correct Answer to any question, and that we know it…”

    I mean, there clearly is. Either it’s better that the law be passed, or it isn’t. (Unless you think Montana kids can handle junk food but Nevada kids can’t.) I’m not at all sure I know the correct answer, and I don’t think Matt and Ezra are either, but I’m pretty confident, and you have to legislate for expected value.

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