Ban It – and Industry Will Find a Substitute!

William Saletan, Science and Technology writer for Slate, has weighed in on New York City’s decision to ban transfat use. His rhetorical case against transfats is intriguing: first, he notes that they are “cheap” (note that elites never use the more accurate term, “affordable”; second, they have an “industrial heritage!” An “industrial heritage” — as if all preservation techniques (and the savings they created) were not the result of the science and technology unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. Saletan quotes approvingly, the statements of the New York health department that transfats are “artificial.” He notes that the health department uses that term some 77 times in the paper justifying their ban.

The logic that the “artificial” is bad; that the “natural” is good has long been an article of faith by environmentalists (and by Luddites more generally): Pagans tend to believe that nothing “natural” can really be that harmful; nothing manmade can be healthy. “In nature,” Saletan opines, “things that are harmful in excess tend to disappear unless they’re safe in moderation.” But transfats are food (they have caloric value) and thus safe (indeed very valuable) in moderation; even though (like all foods) used to excess they can have an adverse health impact. Thus, transfats would seem to meet the Saletan test as would food more generally. And, if excesses are the problem, then why not ban anything that makes such excesses more likely. Indeed, why not ban high-productivity agriculture? Nothing has done more to lower food costs — and, thus, to make possible over-eating than the gains in agricultural productivity over the past decades. Certainly, if food prices went up substantially, it would be much harder to get fat!

The idea that nothing on this planet is vile, save man and his works, was discussed long ago by a very creative writer, William Shakespeare. In his play, The Winter Tale, one character has a distaste for hybrid flowers viewing them as artificial, unnatural.. The argument, however, goes to the individual who argues that man, being natural, working with nature, can create nothing unnatural! That and other wonderful points from Shakespeare are discussed in the delightful book by Frederick Turner, Shakespeare’s Twenty-First Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money.

Saletan does predict (very correctly in my opinion) that the limp-wrist defense of transfats by industry foreshadows a ban on other fat substitutes. Indeed, he notes that NYC has already mandated “calorie counts” for all standardized items at restaurants (one wonders how they decide how much salad dressing the average consumer places on those low-caloric salads?). He notes that industry can now expect the ban to be extended to saturated fats .. and probably other food products that — used to excess — can create health problems. He cautions that industry is “cooking [its] own goose.” They are, of course, but then industry rarely understands politics and seems to have no idea at all, that they’re engaged in a cultural war for survival. We’re seeking to educate them.