D.C.’s autocrats of the breakfast table

Benjamin Domenech Research Fellow, Heartland Institute
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What a great time to be a bureaucrat. Under President Obama’s leadership, they’re everywhere these days—in charge of things and with freedom of access to people’s personal information they never dreamed of having. Health care treatment records? Check. Insurance records? Of course. ATM records for average citizens, without needing a pesky subpoena? You got it.

Thanks to the president and his allies on Capitol Hill, Americans are witnessing a massive expansion of the size and power of government, giving bureaucrats more power than ever before over the way we live and the choices we make. Regulators are in your stock portfolio, your bank, your doctor’s office—soon enough, they’ll be sitting at your kitchen table.

For years, bureaucrats have been advising you to diminish the amount of salt you eat, and calling shame on you for not listening. So the nanny state is taking matters to the next level: Just this year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg pressured companies into voluntary reductions of salt, and New York Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn) introduced a law banning “the use of salt by restaurants in the preparation of food,” with a hefty $1,000 fine.

Now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is about to take this meddling to the federal level. The Carolina Journal broke the story that, at the behest of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the FDA plans to lower the recommended daily intake of sodium for individuals and mandate limits on salt levels for all packaged and restaurant foods. Christina DeWitt, a member of the IOM advisory panel, describes the bureaucratic plan as treating the American people like the frog in the boiling water: “to slowly ratchet down the sodium level, so people won’t notice the change.”

The FDA is doing this despite the fact that certain foods require high levels of sodium to be healthy to eat, particularly prepackaged meats. Salt, as the settlers could tell you, wards off contamination and food poisoning. There’s simply no way to keep country hams fresh or cure meats such as bacon without using high amounts of sodium—and that’s just what the ham-handed FDA is going after.

We’re swiftly going to be reduced to dining on imitation bacon. The bureaucrats should fear that Thomas Jefferson himself, who once wrote that he would “rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give,” will rise from the ground to lead his recommended “little rebellion, now and then.”

What makes this bureaucratic overreach even worse is that no one can even agree on whether it will help normal Americans. The FDA is planning a decade-long crackdown requiring massive enforcement, corporate costs, and ruining the taste of perfectly good food to compel Americans to lower their daily salt intake. But even those who support the decision agree it will have very little proven health benefit for the average healthy citizen. Washington is effectively applying the FDA’s dietary recommendations for older Americans and those with high blood pressure to the entire population. Who knows what unforeseen negative consequences that may bring?

This is the classic pattern for Washington. First come the well-intentioned recommendations; when those are ignored, the incentives; and when people ignore them, it’s time for penalties. “You should wear water-wings” turns into “you must wear water-wings,” with the power of the state enforcing it. Before you know it, there’s an entire new bureaucratic superstructure of analysts, regulators, and enforcers who depend on fees and fines of American citizens to exist, and on finding new populations to tax, regulate, and analyze if they wish to expand. And bureaucracies always—always—want to expand.

It starts with a little pinch of salt and ends with a mountain of red tape. But now that they’re going after the one kind of pork Washington doesn’t like, they may have to pry it from a lot of cold, dead hands.

Benjamin Domenech is managing editor of Health Care News.