TCS Daily

Pull a Fast One

By Bruce Fein - March 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Human nature covets scapegoats. Fast food is emblematic.

Gluttony is blamed on the succulence of the menu, not on our habits and self-control. Fast food chains and their suppliers are denounced for displacing traditional "Mom and Pop" businesses and farming through free enterprise efficiencies heedless of cultural destruction. But nothing is said to demonstrate that the culture displaced was worth preserving or superior to what followed. The fast food detractors simply pronounce adverse cultural verdicts like infallible Papal Bulls.

Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," a New York Times bestseller, sports the full range of fatuous fast food criticism. Yet the foolishness is a staple of public policy arguments over the industry. And whether enlightened or absurd, conventional wisdom in the United States ultimately finds expression in the laws enacted by legislatures and decisions issued by courts. Thus, "Fast Food Nation" cannot be left unanswered.

Mr. Schlosser's sermonizing language betrays a shocking anti-business bias and contempt for free marketplace choices. The cover of his maiden publication includes the sinister-like subtitle, "The Dark Side of the All-American Meal." But a Whopper with fries and a Coke and their ingredients are neither moral nor immoral. They are not captains of their souls, nor masters of their fates. Human beings are. If there is a dark side to the All-American meal, it is that humans making free choices have preferred vice over virtue, gluttony over moderation.

Schlosser insists that mature and educated adults have been manipulated by the fast food industry to patronize their fare. Thus, he disapprovingly observes: "A hamburger and french fries became the quintessential American meal in the 1950s, thanks to the promotional efforts of the fast food chains. The typical American now consumes approximately three hamburgers and four orders of french fries every week." If American buyers had been duped or mislead in their fast food purchases by promotional efforts, however, they would have sued for fraud or breach of contract. But they have not because their fast food consumption decisions have been free and voluntary.

What Schlosser finds alarming or disturbing in the fast food industry is either untroublesome or praiseworthy. Fast food promotions spur competition in price, quality, and service, alert consumers to the availability of products, and enable newcomers to overtake sluggish or senescent old-timers. Further, self-promotion is commonplace in all businesses, including book selling and Schlosser's own touting of "Fast Food Nation" as a cachet catching New York Times bestseller.

Mr. Schlosser scolds the industry because its unwearied search to satisfy consumers is motivated by profit, not altruism. But as Adam Smith noted more than two centuries ago in "Wealth of Nations," one of the happy incidences of human nature is the convergence in free markets of private desires for pecuniary gain and consumer welfare: "[Every individual] intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention...By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much public good to come from those who affected to trade for the public good." Thus, Mahatma Gandhi's "altruistic" economics did nothing to lift India from abject poverty.

The fast food scourge also faults the industry for opposing unions, seeking to minimize labor and related costs, and making profits their North Star. But the right to oppose unions is every bit as celebrated in the law and morals as the opposite. Less than one in seven workers belong to a union because the most cherish rewards pivoting on individual performance. All employers aim to minimize wages, just as all employees seek to maximize compensation. Both motivations are mercenary. They stand on the same moral plane. Yet not a syllable from Schlosser's pen upbraids workers for demanding the highest wages that the market will bear. And fast food customers are no more driven by altruism than are sellers of the All-American meal. They shop for discount prices and scrupulously decline to pay more than menu prices to fatten their bank accounts.

In a concluding peroration, Schlosser thunders forth with platitudes and glibness: "There is nothing inevitable about the fast food industry that surrounds us-about its marketing strategies, labor policies, and agricultural techniques, about its relentless drive for conformity and cheapness. The triumph of McDonald's and its imitators was by no means preordained." In other words, free consumer choices dictate business arrangements and practices; and, since free will contemplates the possibility of different choices, the fast food landscape would have been different if consumers, putting their money where their mouths were, wanted something different.

The fast food industry neither enjoys nor deserves exemptions from customary labor, health, safety, antitrust, or consumer protection laws. Free and open competition is thwarted by fraud or collusive behavior in any industry.

Author Schlosser, in the spirit of lenity, denies that he is accusing fast food as solely responsible "for every social problem now haunting the United States." Only the lion's share, like urban malls and sprawl in the West, franchising, and obesity are laid at its feet.

But doesn't his anger and frustration with culture freely chosen and embraced by the American people smack of a child shattering a mirror in punishment for reflecting an undesired image?

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