Stossel: Trans Fat Ban Is 'Nanny State' Intrusion


Dec. 6, 2006 — -- This week, New York became the first big city to ban trans fats.

Gee, I'm all for good health, but shouldn't it be a matter of individual choice?

The New York Times front-page story "New York Bans Most Trans Fats in Restaurants" has the sub-headline: "A Model for Other Cities."

"A model for what, exactly?" asks Don Boudreaux, an economist at George Mason University. "Petty tyranny? Or perhaps for similarly inspired bans on other voluntary activities with health risks? Clerking in convenience stores? Walking in the rain?"

The intrusions of the "Nanny State" are never-ending. This week, I plan to do a "Gimme Me A Break" for "20/20" on how Fairfax County, Va., banned churches from serving home-cooked meals to street people. The county eventually rescinded the ban after the bureaucrats got bad publicity -- but that's the exception.

The Fairfax example is just one more argument for limited government. With less government intervention, we don't have special exceptions just for people who get press coverage or who are politically connected.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, "The more laws and order are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be."

Today, we have everything but limited government. The Nanny State's excessive regulation is endless. And growing.

If you want to sell foie gras in a Chicago restaurant, you'll have to break the law. Not that this stops anyone. Restaurants all over Chicago sell the French delicacy, including restaurants that never sold it before. They openly thumb their noses at the new law.

In this case, Chicago is catering to the animal-rights lobby, which complains that geese and ducks are force-fed to make the fattened-liver paste. (The American Veterinary Medical Association investigated the process and abstained from condemning it.)

City officials say cracking down on foie gras pushers won't be a high priority. But the law is on the books, ready whenever authorities want to harass a troublesome restaurateur.

Political leaders say they work hard to advance the general welfare. What they really do is help vocal and well-organized special interests.

Sometimes I think people who run for office are the most dangerous people. Most of us want to run our own lives, or help people by offering them charity (like the churches in Fairfax County) or selling them things (like a juicy burger).

The people who want to run other people's lives are… different. In pursuit of their vision of the perfect world, they justify absurd restrictions on our freedom and force us to live their way.

For example:

  • In Belton, Mo., it is illegal to throw a snowball.
  • In New Jersey and Oregon, it is illegal to pump your own gas.
  • In Kern County, Calif., it is illegal to play bingo while drunk.
  • In Illinois, it is against the law to hunt bullfrogs with a firearm.
  • In Massachusetts, it's illegal to deface a milk carton.
  • In Fairfax, Va., the use of pogo sticks is outlawed on city buses.
  • In Palm Harbor, Fla., it is illegal to have an artificial lawn.

Some of these silly laws are old. But as dumb as they are, they're still on the books.

The bureaucratic bad ideas never go away. They don't repeal old laws; they just pass new ones.

The mayor of the tiny community of Friendship Heights, Md., said he had to protect his citizens from cigarette smoke. So several years ago, he got his town to pass the most stringent anti-smoking law in America. The law banned cigarette smoke not just in restaurants, bars and offices, but outdoors too.

The mayor is a doctor who should have known that only the flimsiest of data suggests secondhand smoke hurts people. The suggestion of slight risk came from studies of people who lived with smokers and were exposed to lots of secondhand smoke at home and in cars.

The idea that outdoor cigarette smoke is a meaningful health risk is silly. Granted, secondhand smoke is a nuisance. But so are many other things.

But the mayor was a zealot, and Friendship Heights banned smoking anywhere on city property, which meant no smoking on the sidewalks, on the streets, or in the parks.

I said to Mayor Alfred Muller, "You're another of these busybody politicians who wants to tell other people how to live their lives."

He replied, "Well, we're elected to promote the general welfare, and this is part of the general welfare."

The mayor seemed very sincere, and the citizens of Friendship Heights felt protected by his concern. However, shortly after I interviewed him, he was caught touching a 14-year-old boy's genitals in a restroom at Washington National Cathedral. The mayor got probation, and the village council repealed his law.

Now we finally know what it takes to get a law repealed.

The people who have the biggest passion for restricting other people's behavior are the very people we should worry about most.

Unfortunately, they keep running for office.