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Common Sense--Not Paternalism--Should Drive Nutrition Policy

Common Sense–not Paternalism–Should Drive Nutrition Policy

Education, policies to encourage a sense of personal responsibility, are far better than a "Father Knows Best" attitude in Washington.

Mere’s a timely question: What does the Enron scandal have in common with the obesity problem that’s plaguing America?

Give up? The answer is that both have caused public interest groups and some members of Congress to call for regulations to "protect" Americans from themselves.

This is not to say that the Enron debacle shouldn’t cause us to regulate some obviously abusive practices in the area of public company financial disclosure, accounting firm conflicts of interest, and self-serving (for the company) corporate restrictions on vested 401(k) funds. But I am concerned when reformers call for rules that would dictate to consumers how they would be allowed to allocate their own 401(k) funds.

In some cases, one fund or stock may be an especially attractive investment–and if so, may grow faster than alternative investments. A 20% investment today might become a 35% investment tomorrow. Would the reformers require employees to divest the most successful component of a portfolio?

Further, the very nature of investments is that their value goes up and down over time. If you carry the regulatory argument further, the government would be micro-managing 401(k) account allocations with the natural swings of every business sector.

It seems to me that a key value of employee-directed investment programs is that they encourage citizens to take on greater personal responsibility for their own retirement savings. We already have a Social Security safety net. 401(k) plans are not government-managed programs and were never intended to be so.

Quite frankly, Congress would be better advised to work on better managing the Social Security program it does have responsibility for.

Much more constructive is President Bush’s call for a fresh look at the restrictions now placed on how employers may educate employees about managing retirement savings accounts. Much of this advice isn’t likely to be much different than the kinds of advice that can be had from magazines like Money. But it would ensure that employees who may not investigate such information on their own are at least exposed to it. That’s at about the point where government’s role on such matters should end.

Consumer education, and government policies to encourage a sense of personal responsibility, are far better than increased paternalism and a "Father Knows Best" attitude in Washington.

Now for the "Fat Issue." Activist groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) have recently been calling for taxes on various types of food they have determined are "unhealthy." In the past, CSPI has attacked the consumption of eggs, fought FDA approval of everything from Olestra to artificial sweeteners, and so on. The list is quite lengthy.

Recently, CSPI and other groups (including trial lawyers) have raised the volume on arguments that processed food manufacturers should be held accountable for increases in obesity, much as tobacco companies have been held accountable for smoking-related lung cancer.

While this may be a seductive argument for some, it carries the concept of legal liability to an absurd extreme. (While we’re at it, why don’t we just mandate world peace and fund the effort with taxes on the purchase of weapons systems?)

Worse, such an approach–just like the "401(k) fund" solution–assumes that regulatory solutions are the only ones that will work, while strategies to encourage personal responsibility for diet and exercise simply don’t advance the agenda fast or effectively enough.

Again, this is not to say that obesity is not a serious and growing issue for American society, or that some regulation–and lots of education–are not called for.

But as we have said on this editorial page before, let’s start by using common sense in the public school system and the National School Lunch program, where education efforts can be strengthened. Congress, which already holds school nutrition programs accountable for meeting nutritional guidelines, should give USDA authority to regulate the so-called "competitive" food products often offered on K-12 school campuses.

Our national strategy should be to teach children sound nutrition and to ensure that the school environment matches that by example. We should not say one thing in the cafeteria and another with the vending machines outside the principal’s office.

Common sense is badly called for in many issues like this and should always be applied before considering the recommendations of groups like CSPI. You can lead a horse to water. But only paternalistic government–encouraged by groups like CSPI–thinks you can make a horse drink there.

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