Hands Off My French Fries! A Philosophical Objection to “Nudging” in the Food Industry

Every once in a while, I can’t resist indulging in a sleeve of hot, crispy McDonald’s French fries.  Not even Michelle Obama can resist the attractive allure of the crispy spuds. However, that doesn’t stop her from trying to curb the desires of her fellow Americans.  I can only assume that the First Lady’s stint in office will long be characterized by her perpetual battle against America’s increasing waistline.  Her attempt to halt the increasing health concerns of overweight Americans is certainly a noble cause, but her methods (unsurprisingly) are not always acceptable within the confines of a classical liberal society.

Historically, any intervention into individual decision making has been deemed paternalistic.  Paternalism is any interference into a person’s exercise of their free will in a manner deemed to be in their best interest. Perhaps the most common paternalistic regulation is the requirement of all automobile passengers (in some states) to wear seatbelts. In the food industry, people are generally very wary of restrictions on their dining options whether or not this restriction is proposed in the name of “better health.”  Thus, the Obama administration has enacted what is known as “Libertarian Paternalism” in an attempt to assuage these concerns.  Libertarian Paternalism is a theory created by Richard Thaler and Obama Czar Cass Sunstein which claims that it is possible to use paternalistic means in a way that is still compatible with a free society.  It uses the concept of “nudges” to shape the choices of decision makers. For example, Thaler and Sunstein suggested moving desserts around in a cafeteria so that the fresh fruit would be more accessible than the less healthy choices. In a decision praised by Michelle Obama herself, McDonalds is taking on the concept of “default” choices in order to provide children with healthier options. Soon, the automatic side in every Happy Meal will be apples, not French Fries.

This system of “nudges” may seem to be an innocent solution to a massive issue, but its affects are perhaps far more insidious than they appear to be at first glance. The key issue with this theory is that it messes with our own internal choice structures by hinging upon the imperfections inherent in human decision making. Humans, by nature, tend to be impulsive and only superficially deliberative when it comes to making purchases.  Libertarian paternalism latches onto this imperfection and uses it to meet the ends of the person creating the choice set.  Nudging insidiously shapes the decision making behavior by making what some bureaucrat deems the “better” choice more readily available. In the case of the food industry, their desired “end” is universally better health.  However, under this libertarian paternalistic system, that end is actually more difficult to achieve.

Healthier lifestyles require internal behavior modification and elective change.  This can only come about through education and individual trial and error.  For example, someone who has a heart attack because of a lifestyle of unhealthy eating might begin to consider changing their behavior to improve their own heath.  The negative health consequence of their action was the “trigger” for the change.  However, under a system of “nudges,” the trigger is mere convenience.  People will tend to choose the automatic option, whether it be apples or French fries, not because of the health value, but because of ease or their laziness.  A default side or reorganized cafeteria will not make me healthier, but an internal choice for behavior modification will.

Obama Czar Cass Sunstein

When you mess with people’s internal choices, things get complicated. Theorists like Sunstein and Thaler like to claim that their “nudges” are compatible with free choice, but they are mistaken. A key requirement for free choice is that the choice is, well, free.  How can a choice be truly free when the chooser is being poked and prodded and when the choice itself is being “shaped” by an outside force?  Trying to change personal preference is the definition of coercion, however subtle it may be.  However, for now, I plan on holding tight to my own personal choice sets for they are the basis of my individual freedom. I’ll choose the food options that I want, regardless of federal or social objections. If my food choice is deemed “incorrect” by the First Lady or the members of her coalition, so be it. Now excuse me while I go try to show McDonald’s employees that that I am not too old to buy a Happy Meal. And yes, Michelle Obama, I would like fries with that.

Amy Lutz // Saint Louis University // @AmyLutz4

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