On September 6th, 1824, at Monticello, the eighty-one-year-old Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to one William Ludlow (my emphasis):
…I have observed this march of civilization advancing from the sea coast, passing over us like a cloud of light, increasing our knowledge and improving our condition, insomuch as that we are at this time more advanced in civilization here than the seaports were when [I] was a boy. And where this progress will stop no one can say. Barbarism has, in the meantime, been receding before the steady step of amelioration; and will in time, I trust, disappear from the earth. You seem to think that this advance has brought on too complicated a state of society, and that we should gain in happiness by treading back our steps a little way. I think, myself, that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious. I believe it might be much simplified to the relief of those who maintain it.
Meanwhile, in a recent Times editorial, academics George Lowenstein and Peter Ubel issue a call for the “machinery of government” to be expanded and adjusted to grind a little smaller — because even when properly informed, the citizenry, in an intolerable demonstration of willful insubordination, obstinately refuse to act as their betters have determined they ought.
Take, for example, our nation’s obesity epidemic. The fashionable response, based on the belief that better information can lead to better behavior, is to influence consumers through things like calorie labeling — for instance, there’s a mandate in the health care reform act requiring restaurant chains to post the number of calories in their dishes.
Calorie labeling is a good thing; dieters should know more about the foods they are eating. But studies of New York City’s attempt at calorie posting have found that it has had little impact on dieters’ choices.
Obesity isn’t a result of a lack of information; instead, economists argue that rising levels of obesity can be traced to falling food prices, especially for unhealthy processed foods.
To combat the epidemic effectively, then, we need to change the relative price of healthful and unhealthful food — for example, we need to stop subsidizing corn, thereby raising the price of high fructose corn syrup used in sodas, and we also need to consider taxes on unhealthful foods. But because we lack the political will to change the price of junk food, we focus on consumer behavior.
Yes, it’s shameful: allowing free men and women to make their own free choices in a free market, rather than simply instituting new laws and levies to make them do what professors Lowenstein and Ubel know is best for them. What’s the matter with us, anyway?
Well, don’t worry, we now have a new man in charge. Story here.
Wait — what’s that you say, Tom?
“The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite.”
Oh, you needn’t bother about that any longer. All settled, thanks.