We've all seen one of these, I'm guessing:
|Would you like to know more?|
The majority of Americans probably skip right past these. They're a little complicated, and... really, who cares?
Except that a lot of people need this information to live. Diabetics have to read everything, count their carbs, check for bleached white flour. Rice. Potato. According to a casual Google search, diabetes affects about 8.3% of Americans, and diabetics need to know what's in every meal they eat. Forever.
It's possible to have allergies to all sorts of things. Another casual Google search suggests that many of the most dangerous allergies are food related, including peanuts, shellfish, dairy, soy, wheat and eggs. Consequences of eating the wrong thing can range from discomfort to death. Someone with a peanut allergy can be in for some real hard times, if they eat some.
People with heart conditions have to watch their salt, their cholesterol...
A lot of people need these things, even though the majority of people never do more than glance at them.
The only reason that we have them is government regulation. See, gathering and distributing this information is not free - it's a cost on businesses. Successful businesses are about minimizing costs. This is also information that a business may prefer to keep quiet, because people might choose to avoid their product for a competitor's with a little less sugar or a little less fat.
If you don't believe me, take a look at booze the next time you're at the store. Alcoholic beverages get a pass on labeling, and as a result? They don't do it. I can immediately know what's in a can of Coke or Pepsi or even Fred's Choice, but I don't have that same information when I pick up a can of beer or a bottle of rum.
The only difference is the law.
This whole thing has a long history, too. The FDA didn't happen overnight. People died before we got the rules we have now. Things were, in fact, pretty gross in the time of small government *.
I've heard a lot of talk about how efficient businesses are. How we should 'run government like a business.' I was recently forwarded an e-mail talking about 'taxmageddon,' and how government was 'strangling' business and 'crushing' taxpayers, and...
Well, it was all very colorful. But here's the thing:
When a business succeeds, it's visible. We know Coke is doing very well. They have a ton of money, and they spend a lot of it telling us how great they are. The success of a business is readily quantifiable and spread around.
When a business fails, that's when things are quiet. Some guy opens a restaurant down the road and it flops? You probably never even heard of it. That's part of why it failed. And they do fail all the time.
Government doesn't work like that. When a government program flops, you can bet someone is going to tell you. And the truth is, government screws up a lot. It's a human institution, and humans are all about mistakes.
When government works, though? Good government is pretty invisible, apart from going to the Moon or something. Part of the fun is that we can take it for granted. The good the FDA does is preventative: there's no way to tell how many people would've gotten sick or died without them. I couldn't tell you that.
All I can say is that I'd be one of the bodies.
The next time someone talks about small government for the sake of small government - rather than offering a nuanced critique of a specific policy? Try to remember food labels, and take a minute to think about all the other things government does that we don't talk about, because we're free to take them for granted.
Then maybe think about how to fix what's specifically wrong with government, instead of just forgetting the whole thing and returning to a veritable jungle **.
* The Jungle is an amazing read. It's a novelization, but it's based on Upton Sinclair's own experiences, and is held to be a major contributing factor in the FDA existing at all.
People really lived like that in this country.
** No, seriously, read it.