There are probably a million policy arguments about food, and what the government’s role in food safety ought to be.
Yesterday, my cousin–a respected cardiologist–sent me a document warning about the documented health dangers of drinking raw milk, and what he assured me is an ill-conceived and dangerous movement to change current laws that make selling raw milk illegal. Proponents of the change insist–in the face of overwhelming research suggesting otherwise–that raw milk is not only safe, but able to cure a variety of diseases.
In New York, Mayor Bloomberg is under attack from everyone from libertarians to Jon Stewart for his effort to ban the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces. And the movement against genetically-enhanced foods continues to gain adherents. (I confess to sympathy with many of their arguments myself.)
These debates raise the threshold policy question: what is the role of government? Are rules against raw milk evidence that we live in a nanny state, or are those rules precisely the sort of protections for which government must be responsible?
Most citizens do not have access to scientific evidence nor the ability to interpret that evidence. I know I don’t. So what should government do when experts identify a “clear and present” danger?
Unsurprisingly, I think the answer is: it depends.
In some cases–perhaps most–government’s role should probably be limited to that of informer, publicizing the danger and ensuring that individuals possess the relevant information when making personal choices. But in other cases the danger is either too serious or the harm to others who haven’t chosen to risk the behavior too great. The smoking ban falls in the latter category.
The raw milk controversy underlines the most basic tension presented by the libertarian principle that we should be free to live and do as we wish unless and until we harm the person or property of a non-consenting other: what is harm?
To which we might add, what should government do when a harm is confirmed by science but not obvious to reasonable observers? Or when scientists disagree?
In an increasingly complex world, where technology and genetic manipulation make the accoutrements of everyday life more mysterious and impenetrable, these aren’t easy questions.