Freedom, Rational Choice, and Pop

by Lewis Marshall, PhD Candidate in Chemical Engineering

I am a progressive libertarian. I value a meaningful right to self-determination.

Thank you for the question, but no, I would not be more comfortable writing for the Review. I do not think that meaningful self-determination is a product to be bought or sold on the free market. Poverty is not freedom. No one is free who is afraid to walk the streets alone for risk of violence. No one is free who cannot change jobs without losing access to healthcare.

But, I am still a libertarian. If you want to consume copious amounts of drugs in the privacy of your home, it’s fine by me. If you want to spend your life with a partner of whatever gender, or with multiple partners, or alone, I don’t think that’s the government’s business. If you want to end your life on your own terms, rather than live with a chronic, painful illness, I think that’s a decision for you and your loved ones.

The force of government should not compel you unless there is a public interest at stake.

So I looked with interest at Mayor Bloomberg’s regulation of soda sizes in New York City. The New York City Board of Health recently approved a ban on sugary drinks of of sizes larger than 16 oz. at any establishment subject to health inspection.

What greater infringement on individual liberty is there than meddling in personal food consumption? It’s paternalistic and controlling.

And I’m totally in favor of it.

I had a hard time coming to this position. Supporting this ban betrays my usual thinking about government regulation of consumption. Frankly, I’m arguing that heroin should be legal, but woe to you if you want a 20 oz. Mountain Dew.

As the SF Chronicle argues, there is no ban on refills. If you want 32 ounces of soda, just get two 16 oz. cups. This is the argument that set the hook in my mind. You can still buy as much soda as you want. There are no monthly quotas, no soda ration stamps. A rational consumer who wants enough soda to fill a kiddy pool can still go home with their a dozen 16-oz. cups. So why does anyone, on any side, care about this law?

The operative phrase here is “rational consumer”. Understanding this law requires that we face a basic philosophical question about ourselves. Are we creatures of free will, in control of our own fates? Or are we mechanistic animals, controlled by our biological imperatives?[1]

The answer is a little of each. We make some decisions on a rational or emotional basis, and we identify with those decisions. “I chose to write for an activist blog because I value progressive ideas.” But we’re driving an Autopia car; we can steer left or right, but we can’t run past the rails of our biological limitations. You can decide to stay awake — until you get tired and fall asleep. (And when you do, you might cease to identify with the decision. You might say, “I had to fight the urge to sleep,” as if there were an alien entity bewitching you.)

The only reason this law may have any effect is that we are not the rational, intertemporally optimizing consumers of Fisher. We contain a multitude of selves — rational, emotional, intuitive and instinctual — all of which impact our decisions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our mental modes serve different purposes, and they can exist in balance. But our irrationality is used to negative ends by modern advertising and packaging. Corporations use our mental shortcomings to upsell us.

And there are plenty of shortcomings to exploit. We use visual cues to estimate how much we’ve eaten, and if our eyes deceive us, we’ll just go on eating. We eat more when we’re served from larger bowls [PDF]. And as Deidrie Barrett explains in Supernormal Stimuli, our internal appetite circuitry is not ready for the refined foods of our modern society. “Fast-food and self-interested advertisers did not create our craving for fats, sugar, and salt, though they exploit them. On the African savannah, we evolved a desire for these substances because they were rare and survival depended on locating a bit of each. Now dummy foods loaded with these substances are as close as the vending machine down the hall. We’re basically hunter-gatherers lost in one giant food court.”

Capitalism itself is learning how to contravene our rational self-determination, and not only using food. Our shopping environments are also designed to manipulate our unconscious decision-making. “Stores crank up music, repeat the same songs, over and over again, pipe in smells, race shoppers around to far-flung points of purchase and clog their heads with confusing offers,” writes Oliver Burkman at NYT. “All of which makes it more likely we’ll part more readily with more money.”

As food and drink manufacturers edge up the portion sizes, and stores manipulate shopping environments, we have to deal with the consequences, to our bank accounts and to our bodies. Regulating how food is sold is not just a matter of the freedom of consumers to buy. It’s a fight over the freedom not to buy. And it’s cracking the shell of a larger societal question: how much will we allow our unconscious choice mechanisms to be manipulated in the service of profit?


Lewis Marshall is a Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering. He is the former president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics @ Stanford.

[1] Philosophers may scream as they read this. I admit that I’m abusing a deeper metaphysical question on what we mean by free will. Today, I’m using “free will” to denote the idea that our decisions are controlled by the part of our brains that we identify with our sense of self. This may not be a satisfying definition, but it is pragmatic here.
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One thought on “Freedom, Rational Choice, and Pop

  1. John says:

    Libertarian…I do not think that word means what you think it means.

    Judging from your belief that government should regulate the size of a soda cup, I can most certainly say that you need not worry about being out of place on this “blog,” and that you most certainly are not a libertarian.

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