Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Individual responsibility and its enemies


It never ends.

Give up on old-fashioned notions of individual responsibility and you enter the political realm of Gilda Radner's Roseanne Roseannadanna: "It's always something."

Forcing restaurants to list calories for each menu item, mandating that shoppers bring their own reusable bags to the store or be charged up to 20 cents a bag, requiring adults to wear bicycle helmets—it's been a busy couple of weeks for the folks bent on regulating the tiniest parts of our lives. How busy? Even Portland liberals are getting a mite fed up with the hyper-intrusions (1,264 calories a serving) that our know-better nannies want to serve up.

My advice: Get used to it, because there's more where this came from.

Folks who think that individuals cannot be trusted to protect their own interests or make the best decision for themselves and their world will always find plausible, if attenuated, excuses to turn a traditionally private matter into a public cause celebre. No matter how small or incidental the issue—the bike ride around the block, the bag that holds your groceries, the calories in your fast-food milkshake--they'll always be ready to use the government and the force of law to get people in line.

The nation's obesity crisis? It's not just an individual's responsibility to take off the feedbag and eat healthier meals or get off the couch and onto an exercise bike. No, it becomes a restaurant's legal responsibility to post the calories in items that patrons order (voluntarily) after entering the premises (voluntarily).

Why? Because people who eat too much fast food become super-sized, and this leads to heart disease and diabetes and this leads, in our welfare state, to the public paying some of their medical costs. And there you have it, an excuse for the Multnomah County Commissioners to force private businesses to change their business practices. A private matter becomes the public's business.

Individuals apparently are incapable of not going into fast-food restaurants if they're watching their weight or finding out for themselves what's the right nutritional choice. Individual restaurants apparently are incapable of providing nutritional information on their own or marketing their diet-friendly foods. No, government must step in to try and get individuals and eateries to shape up.

Then, there's state Sen. Floyd Prozanski's recent brainchild. Until he heard from a ticked-off public, the Eugene Democrat wanted to require that adult bicyclists across Oregon wear helmets. Now, there's every good reason for bicyclists to wear helmets, but that's just the point: Adult bicyclists can recognize their own self-interest without the state's help. They have skin in the game. They'll suffer physically and financially if their unprotected noggin meets the road.

But none of this matters to nanny-staters. This private matter becomes the public's business because the state might end up paying for the care of a few uninsured, unprotected bicyclists in accidents.

Global warming is the perfect pretext to erase the line between the private and public. If you believe that man-made global warming requires man-made action to cool down our planet, every aspect of human activity is ripe for state action if it reduces our carbon footprint. Nanny-stater Sam Adams doesn't even bother to simply require merchants to list items' carbon emissions. Our no-boundaries mayor-elect jumps right in with his latest proposal on shopping bags.

Behold its preciousness: Paper and plastic bags are both recyclable. Shopping bag zealots are free to bring their own green bags, and some merchants give a small green-for-green discount to those who do. But that's not good enough at Sam's club in Portland. You'll have to pay a small tax if you don't bring your own bag. As the environmental philosopher Kermit the Frog has said, "It's not easy being green."

In other words, it's always something.

In fact, we haven't seen the worst of it, and you might not be able to escape by leaving Portlandgrad. One Democratic state legislator wants to take Multnomah County's calorie-listing diktat statewide.

Last week the Los Angeles City Council banned fast-food restaurants from opening in South Los Angeles for a year so the city can develop measures to attract restaurants with healthier food to the area. And here's the next big nanny-state proposal that taps into the obesity crisis and global warming: closing down drive-through windows at fast-food restaurants.

Cut carbon emissions and force fast-food junkies to expend some calories before they tuck into their Big Macs (540 calories each, according to McDonald's' easily accessible Web site). Perfect.

No, it will never end.

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