Today it’s ‘nudge squads,’ tomorrow it’s enforcement

Michelle Minton Fellow in Consumer Policy Studies, Competitive Enterprise Institute
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It’s not yet true that the White House can force you to eat and drink only what it considers “good” for you. But as Fox News revealed in July, it has moved a step closer in creating a “nudge squad,” or as it is officially known, a behavioral insights team.

According to a document obtained by Fox, the team will consist of  “4-5 experts in behavioral science and experimental design and evaluation” tasked with “design[ing] public policies that work better, cost less, and help people to achieve their goals.” And just what kinds of goals do they have in mind? While the document doesn’t provide specifics on what “interventions” will be employed to advance government ends, the team is reportedly working with the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, among other agencies. There’s little doubt that the team will seek ways to nudge Americans into making “healthier” lifestyle choices, with the hope of lowering obesity rates.

Only, evidence shows government nudging does not affect consumer behavior and often has negative unintended consequences. A study published last July in the American Journal of Public Health looked at calorie consumption in New York before and after the city required fast-food restaurants to put calorie information on their menus.

The authors found calorie consumption actually rose a little. Researchers at Cornell University conducted an experiment where they instituted a 10 percent soda tax for half the population in a town in upstate New York. Soda consumption among those paying the tax declined for only the first month and then returned to normal. Interestingly, those paying the soda tax also increased their consumption of beer.

Setting aside the question of whether government can nudge Americans toward healthier choices, we ought to be asking whether it should. Excessive use of sugar, soda, caffeine, or salt can cause negative health outcomes, but no amount of government nudging can push people into healthier lifestyle habits if they don’t want to.

And yet governments persist. There is Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Big Gulp ban in New York, that was thankfully struck down by a judge who called it “arbitrary and capricious,” a ruling upheld by an appeals court on the grounds that it violated the state constitution’s separation of power doctrine and “usurped the role of the City Council and imposed social policy by executive fiat.”

And then, a mere day after Bloomberg’s nannying went down in flames, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) was back at it, holding a hearing in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on the safety of caffeine consumption in products like energy drinks. Consumption of such drinks is up 60 percent over the last five years – and literally billions of these drinks are sold around the world each year. But Durbin has become “concerned” about isolated anecdotes of people becoming sick or dying from drinking them and has joined the long list of those who have tried to reduce Americans’ caffeine intake – from coffee, soda, tea or other drinks – over the years.

Despite a solid body of research that shows people who keep caffeine intake to about four cups of coffee per day or less have nothing to worry about, Durbin has plowed ahead. He has re-introduced legislation that would grant the Food and Drug Administration broad power to label caffeine and other dietary ingredients as hazardous, which means, of course, government can regulate them in new and exciting ways. Just last week, the FDA and the Institute of Medicine are holding a public workshop to examine the potential hazards of caffeinated foods and beverages.

We can all get a chuckle out of Mayor Bloomberg’s foibles. Even the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart ridiculed the idea. And we can’t get much more than annoyed with Sen. Durbin’s ham-handed attempts to designate as dangerous an ingredient people have consumed safely for thousands of years.

But there is a serious problem here that demands our attention. Right now, government is content to nudge or slowly restrict. But eventually, it will want to give orders on what we can and can’t eat or drink. That will mean less choice for consumers, less innovation by food producers and, of course, less freedom for Americans.

Because, really, shouldn’t we be deciding the goals we want to accomplish instead of the government?

Michelle Minton is a Fellow in Consumer Policy Studies for the Competitive Enterprise Institute.