Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Libertarian Means Local

This little libertarian kerfuffle seemed like a lot of fun. First, Dan Mitchell at Cato called Congressional efforts to ban candy, soda, and fatty snacks from school lunches "Nanny State Foolishness." This prompted responses from Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein who both point out that there's nothing wrong with nannying children and there's nothing wrong with eliminating unhealthy options for children. Finally, Julian Sanchez and Megan McArdle weigh in on the debate, Julian making a philosophical point about federalism and local control, Megan making the practical point that local school boards usually have fairly good reasons for making the choices they make- And those reasons are not because they're stupid or they don't like their children.

I think Julian and Megan are right on target, but I'm blogging here because I feel like this sort of debate highlights the lack of understanding most people have over issues that pit the federal government against state and local governments. Federalism can be a big word for some people, so I'd rather just talk about local control. Certain issues demand uniform, across-the-board responses. I just don't think much of anything regarding education- particularly school lunches- demand a uniform federal response.

The real issue is not what the specific policy should be regarding schools and junk food. The question you need to ask yourself is whether reasonable people could disagree about what the specifics of a junk food policy should be.

Julian Sanchez puts it best:

If you think it's obvious that there's an Objectively Correct Answer to any question, and that we know it—should little Bobby be allowed candy, or kept to a strict wheat germ regimen?—then allowing local variation just means giving the rubes a chance to fuck it up.

Ezra Klein really misses the boat on this issue wondering why it gets libertarians get all "hackled up." The point is that most libertarians recognize that when it comes to this issue- and a great deal of other issues that the federal government involves itself in- there is no one right answer. And most libertarians aren't arrogant enough to assume they, or anyone else, has the right answer about what schools should offer for lunches. Libertarianism at it's heart is about the recognition that the individual is best suited to make decision for his or herself. Certain issues- like public school lunches and whether to offer snacks and candy and soda- demand group solutions, but keeping in line with their regard for the individual, libertarians think that these issues should be resolved by as small groups as possible. This way, individuals retain the most influence and actually have a voice in the ultimate policy outcome.

Proponents of junk food type ban proposals usually have good intentions. But how can even the best intentioned come up with a plan that meets the needs of each of the hundreds of thousands of school systems across the country. Maybe some schools are supporting their sports, music, and art programs solely from soda machine and junk food revenues. Maybe some school systems have poor kids who eat junk food because they're hungry and maybe some school systems have rich kids who stock up on junk food with extra money they get from their parents. Some parents will tell their kids to eat junk food while others will tell their kids to eat healthy. The point is, a law could never be passed that adequately reflects the unique nature of each individual school system in the country. Yet for some reason, politicians keep trying to do just that.


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