There are multiple issues at the heart of the idea that there should be bans on junk food. The surface-level issue is that there is a point at which our free will is being corrupted by external interests, and that government as another external interest can act to counter these influences. The other major underlying issue is actually public health. This paper will examine each of these major issues at the heart of the argument and then examine the strength of the arguments in favor and against such food bands.
The individual free will argument is used by both sides. Opponents of these bans have argued that individuals have the right to make their own determinations. Surowiecki (2012) counters that people do not have a fixed definition of what they want, but rather rely on contextual clues to determine optimal consumption. These cues are typically manipulated by those in the junk food industry to drive higher consumption, since the raison d'etre of those firms is to increase profits. Thus, we have only a veneer of individual free will; the reality is that our concept of free will is frequently manipulated. This leads to the nanny state argument -- that government has recognized this behavior on the part of business and believes it is in the unique position of changing this behavior. By limiting choices, it is protecting people from their own poor decision-making; rather, it is protecting people from having their free will manipulated. This line of reasoning can become quite complex the more philosophical it gets, which leads to a wide range of arguments about free will, the role of individual decision-making in American society and as a contrast to that the role that government should play in influencing individual decision-making. The argument essentially weighs the ethics of reducing one's individual freedom against the benefits of limiting one's fast food options (Mehta, 2007).
Ultimately, the debate about individual will comes down to making a judgment call about what is better in society. Either the individual's right to make his or her own decisions is paramount or the government has a right to help shape better decision-making. When the argument is about children, as Bittman points out, there is less cope for the free will argument to be used as a defense against such laws. Children are generally believed to have lower powers to exercise their free will, and therefore are even more in need of protection than adults. Even if adults want to allow themselves to be duped by marketers, children should be afforded such protection by society, via government regulation. There may even be an inherent superiority embedded in the pro-legislation individual will argument, in that some people are savvy enough to know how marketers seek to influence consumer decision-making, but most people are not as savvy. The role of those who know is to protect those who do not. This is similar to the argument in favor of protecting children, but when it is framed as adults who are in need of protection, people can become quite defensive out the implication that they might be as need of protection as children because their decision-making processes are no better. There are alternatives, such as self-regulation, but studies have shown that self-regulation has been ineffective (Bernhardt, et al., 2013).
The other major issue is actually public health. This is not necessarily a moral issue where the general benefit of having a healthy public is being weighed against the need to preserve individual free will. It may simply be pragmatic, as was the case with the various bans on cigarette marketing and consumption. Governments, like the one Bloomberg runs, pay a significant portion of their expenses to health insurance, and to cover the health care needs of the underprivileged in their societies. There is significant motivation, therefore, to reduce this cost burden. Obesity and related ailments like heart disease and diabetes are contributing factors to the costs that governments face, so governments have incentive to reduce obesity levels in society. There may be nothing altruistic at all about the drive to improve the health of people in New York or anywhere else, but simply a drive to reduce some of the unnecessary costs associated with providing a broad range of health care services. At the…