TCS Daily


Politician, Heal Thyself

By Joshua Livestro - February 27, 2006 12:00 AM

In the past decade or so, Europe has been under siege from a crowd of tight-lipped, tight-bellied, mean-spirited activists. Like an army of Grinches, they've come to rob us of some of what makes life worth living. If they get their way, one dreary day we'll wake up to find we've all become muesli-munching, bicycle riding carrot juice drinkers. Sounds like hell to you? Well, hell is what we will get, unless we take a stand to fight off this modern New Model Army of misery merchants.

On issue after issue, the new puritans have tried to push us into accepting their joyless doctrines. Because of them, smoking, flirting, even driving your car have become quasi-illegal activities. They suggested banning Homer, the Bible and Shakespeare as sexist publications, and ordered Bavarian barmaids to stop wearing their famously low-cut dresses because of the risk of sunburn. They're desperately trying to rob us of our foreign holidays by demanding extra taxes on airline tickets. And now they're coming after our food and drink. Through the use of the "obesity epidemic" myth, they strive to criminalize innocent activities like drinking a milkshake or eating a burger.

In their fight against life's simple pleasures, the neo-puritans have found a powerful ally in the European Commission. This is not because the Commission is somehow dogmatically committed to doing battle against the good life. The Eurocrats like the good life just as much as you and I do -- perhaps even more so, judging by the booming restaurant trade in Brussels and the number of four-wheel-drives parked in the Commission's car parks. The Commission doesn't really have a position on the pursuit of happiness. It's neither for nor against it. It's in favor of something entirely different: regulation. It exists, therefore it regulates, and vice versa. Sometimes this regulation even favors the pursuit of happiness or the cause of liberty. Together with the European Court of Justice, the Commission has been instrumental in increasing the freedom of movement throughout Europe of people and goods and, albeit to a lesser extent, services and capital. Europeans today are free to live Goethe's old dream of traveling the entire length and breadth of the continent without having their suitcases opened even a single time. Free trade has brought wealth, and with it a new lifestyle, a life of leisure, devoted to the pursuit of happiness.

That part of the European project -- the freedom-enhancing part -- has been ceaselessly attacked by the neo-puritan movement. While hitting the Commission with one hand, however, with the other it has been tickling it into taking legislative action on a number of its favorite causes. The Commission has, for instance, been instrumental in pushing through a range of anti-tobacco measures. With its crusade against tobacco nearing its end, though, the Commission was keen to find a new "problem" in which to sink its legislative teeth. The neo-puritans were all too happy to oblige, handing them the "obesity epidemic" issue on an environmentally friendly platter. Urging them on with cries of "Legislate This!", Cromwell's great-great-grandchildren are rubbing their hands in glee at the thought of firm legislative action against another of their pet hates: eating and drinking.

The recent Green Paper on food and drink aims to tackle the "obesity epidemic" by promoting healthy diets and physical activity. If necessary, it states in a menacing tone, the Commission will take legislative action to reach these goals. Unless something is done to stop this madness, we will have European fitness freaks issuing guidelines on the advertising of soft drinks or the maximum size of burgers. If you think that seems unlikely, think again. The anti-happiness brigade has been lobbying hard at the national level to get ministers to take up the cause of smaller diameters for our hamburgers. There's no reason to assume they won't try the same at the European level. Before you know it, the only snack we'll be allowed to eat is a Euroburger, a downsized, tasteless bite of hot air.

To save us from that fate, the restaurant chain McDonald's has now taken a first step towards redressing the balance in favor of sanity. Using the Torino Winter Olympics as a launch pad, they've rolled out a new campaign on food labeling which deals with the same issue in a completely different way. From now on, any item sold in a McDonald's restaurant will mention its fat content, as well as caloric value, carbohydrate levels and sodium content, relating all of these to their daily recommended values. In other words, you will know exactly where that shake or burger fits into your daily diet. By providing consumers with all the data they need to make a fully informed decision about the food they eat, McDonald's is showing the Commission that there is another way to deal with the issues raised by the neo-puritans. McDonald's is not the only player in the food and drinks industry choosing the option of self-regulation. Though a series of self-regulatory initiatives, soft drinks trade organizations like UNESDA here in Europe and the American Beverage Association in the US have demonstrated that less heavy-handed, more flexible solutions can be achieved by letting companies and consumers sort things out between themselves.

And why not? After all, consumers don't need bureaucrats telling them what they can or cannot eat. They quite capable of working that one out on their own, thank you very much - even more so thanks to this additional nutritional information. Or is it rather that, like the neo-puritans, they really just don't trust us to run our own lives?

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