During the debate over health care, some skeptics questioned whether the government’s increasing role in paying for health care might lead to increases in the government’s control over the minutiae of daily lives.  These concerns were generally laughed out of the room.  The government, we were assured by most health care reform advocates, would never attempt to regulate personal choices on that level.  This wasn’t 1984, with mandatory exercise programs and government control over personal nutrition.  Slippery slopes were just logical fallacies given credence only by ignorant rubes.  The skeptics were nothing but anti-government paranoids and probably racists to boot.

Today, the Food and Drug Administration is proposing to begin regulating the amount of salt Americans can consume in processed foods.

The initiative, to be launched this year, would eventually lead to the first legal limits on the amount of salt allowed in food products.

Officials have not determined the salt limits. In a complicated undertaking, the FDA would analyze the salt in spaghetti sauces, breads and thousands of other products that make up the $600 billion food and beverage market, sources said. Working with food manufacturers, the government would set limits for salt in these categories, designed to gradually ratchet down sodium consumption. The changes would be calibrated so that consumers barely notice the modification.

The legal limits would be open to public comment, but administration officials do not think they need additional authority from Congress.

So it turns out that the paranoids may not have been that far off.  The FDA feels it is already empowered to regulate the salt content of what you eat and to “modify [your] palate”, for your own good, of course.  Can regulations on how many soft drinks you are allowed to consume be far behind?  Perhaps they are.  But perhaps not.  It is certainly not unreasonable to wonder whether the sanguine predictions of government restraint might have been, at a minimum, misinformed.

Another line of thought, however, might lead to the claim that this all really is for our own good.  Americans, after all, are overweight and poorly-nourished, prone to various cancers and other diseases because of their own bad choices.  And now that the taxpayers bear the weight for these bad choices, it is in everyone’s interest for the government to step in and at least limit the damage people do to their own bodies.  It’s a tempting line of thought, until you consider the implications for personal liberties once such a mindset was enacted and entrenched.  It is unlikely that it could be stopped with modest regulations on sodium and sugar.  For example, the threat of sexually-transmitted diseases is far more immediate and drastic than the threat from bad dietary choices, especially among young people.  Perhaps the government should  criminalize risky sexual practices, in the hope of deterring them in at least some instances and improving health while reducing health care costs at the same time, right?

Of course, no one would advocate that.  Sexual practices are too intensely personal and the same people who often promote “public health” regulation of sugar, salt, and tobacco use would be outraged if the government regulated sex.

But it is unclear why they are unwilling to allow the government into the bedroom but perfectly willing to shove it into our kitchen pantry.

JASON ARVAK
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