In Defense of Numbers

by Anonymous Staff Writer

(This is a response to Hannah’s recent rant.)

Well, those of you who know I’m a hardcore math nerd probably could have seen this coming. Yes, I’m a big fan of the new menu calorie count law. No, I don’t see it as a betrayal of conservative principle. Let me explain.

Conservatives have an understandably suspicious attitude toward regulation of almost all forms. More regulation means more enforcers. More enforcers means higher taxes, and more people with a vested interest in keeping taxes higher lest they lose their government jobs. With these downsides, it’s correct to view any proposed new regulation with a highly critical eye.

But this is quite different from asserting ALL regulation is bad. I’m happy that the airwaves are regulated so I can listen to my favorite ratio stations, instead of having to worry about the possibility of competitors jamming the signals. I’m happy that air, itself, is regulated, so that I can breathe freely here in a way that I sometimes can’t in East Asia. And I contend that the menu law passes any reasonable test you can throw at it with flying colors.

Let’s consider Hannah’s objections. First, she claims the law is unnecessary. Perhaps, in a world of robots, she would be correct. But in the world of bounded rationality we actually live in, absolutely not. You don’t always know what restaurant you’ll patronize later that day, so online charts are not a complete solution. Asking for calorie counts while dining… let’s get real, that often carries a social cost, and dining out is usually a social activity. Finally and most importantly, it wasn’t in the interest of the restaurants serving the unhealthiest food to proactively inform their customers, and this punished the more responsible restaurants by preventing easy comparison. You can claim until the beer-fed cows come home that existing market forces should have addressed this, but the reality is that (i) the market rewarded addictive food regardless of nutritional value, and (ii) this was not what most customers wanted in the long run, if the size of the weight-loss industry is any indication. I don’t say (ii) lightly, since that type of market failure claim is often made by contemptuous liberals trying to justify some nanny-state measure.

Of course, this alone is not enough to justify the law — the cost of “correcting” a market failure in a particular way very often exceeds the cost of just letting things be. Hannah claims that the law is patronizing, and perhaps even harmfully invasive. What she says is a real danger when composing any public health law. However, I claim the menu law avoids these pitfalls. Exhibit A: BJ’s.

After somebody mentioned that BJ’s perfectly legal menu didn’t shove calorie counts in your face, I decided I had to see for myself. (Oh, the things I do for you all!) Sure enough, I was able to decide on fish and chips without being faced with any numbers lacking a dollar sign in front. And when I flipped to the back of the menu to see what was really going on… yup, I had managed to choose the highest-calorie entree in the section, by a margin of over 300. I went through with my choice anyway, because I’m a guy — life is unfair that way.

The real point here is that the law does not force the emotional discomfort that Hannah describes. That was CPK’s own fault, and if it’s a big deal, the market will punish that joint and reward BJ’s wiser menu design. That leaves the opposition with no concrete objections to the law beyond the minimal increase in bureaucracy. (Compare this to anti-trans fat laws, which actually remove options from customers. I avoid trans fats, but I support the right of restaurants to continue offering them to the informed.) Yes, there will be negative unanticipated consequences… but there’ll be positive ones too, and it is not at all obvious that the former will outweigh the latter.

As conservatives, we shouldn’t be anarchists. We are the ones who should most appreciate the foibles of men, and by extension the laws that are shaped from their core by a healthy understanding of said foibles; even as we fervently oppose the all-too-numerous attempts to reengineer us into something we’re not.


  1. I think the calorie count law overcomes a collective action problem for restaurants that serve less than healthy food. It’s the same thing with smoking bans. No one restaurant wants to ban smoking entirely, (the restaurant and ‘society as a whole’ would benefit from this), because the loss in revenues from smokers would outweigh the benefits for the restaurant. It only works if every other restaurant agrees to implement the same ban, and regulation is the only way to get over this collective action hurdle.

    This might not be the best analogy, since a restaurant that willingly displays calorie counts is unlikely to quickly lose customers. After all, people have ‘qualitative’ ideas about how unhealthy their hamburgers and fries are. Still, I think there are some parallels.

  2. Yeah, that’s what I was getting at with the half-italicized sentence in the middle. Setting up market rules to minimize/address such problems is something of an art. When it’s actually done well, as I believe is the case with this menu law, that deserves commendation.

    As for smoking… hoo boy, that’s a whole new can of worms. There’s pretty good evidence for short-term cognitive benefits from smoking. (That’s not something you’ll be taught in middle or high school!) In a cutthroat world, the incentive could very well be for governments to encourage smoking — the benefit society derives from the smoker’s higher-quality work could very well exceed the public health costs, which I suspect to be more heavily borne by the individual even after taking insurance into account. (I wouldn’t wish lung cancer on anyone.) In light of that, I find it a little bit amazing, in a good way, that I haven’t been socially pressured to speed up my death in that manner.

  3. Yeah there actually is research that suggests that smoking about once a week activates the nicotine receptors in your brain and lowers your long term susceptibility to alzheimers and parkinsons. Great excuse if you’re ever caught lighting up a cigarette at a party, I suppose.

  4. I went to CPK today and re-fell-in-love with the bbq chicken pizza when I found out it was 175 calories of delight.

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