Thursday, August 26, 2004

Junk-Food Junkies

Todd Zywicki makes a plausible argument about vending machines in public schools:
On the other hand, let me stress that it might still be appropriate to ban vending machines at school, although it will do little to combat obesity [for reasons explained elsewhere in Todd’s post – GW]. I think a strong argument can be made that the problem with vending machines is that they permit children to consume junk food without parental supervision and on that basis alone it might be appropriate to ban them.
The appropriate rules for children obviously differ from the appropriate rules for adults. For that reason, I’m quite happy not to grant the full complement of libertarian rights to kids, and I have no problem in principle with the vending machine proposal. Parents should have the authority, within limits, to control their children’s diets.

Still, some of the usual libertarian insights on prohibition would seem to apply here. I predict that a vending machine ban would encourage enterprising youngsters to bring in junk food from the outside to sell to their classmates. Black markets are hardly unknown to the public schools. If the kids can sneak in coke, surely they could sneak in Coke – especially if the ban did not extend to junk foods that parents put in their kids’ lunches. The result? Higher prices, and drinks that aren’t refrigerator cold.

And now for the slippery slope. Upon observing a black market in junk food, school authorities would never see fit to lift the ban. At best, they would let the imperfectly enforced ban stand. More likely, given the personality types that typically gravitate to positions of authority in the public schools, would be the emergence of a “zero tolerance” policy. No longer could more permissive parents allow their kids to bring their own junk food, because such food might be sold to the children of less permissive parents. The process would culminate in a complete ban on junk food of any kind in school.

Of course, I’m just speculating here. But if my speculation is correct, notice how the debate unfolds: what begins as an argument based on parental discretion (“parents who want to restrict their children’s diets should be able to do so”) ends up as a restriction on parental discretion (“you can’t send your children to school with junk food in their lunches”).

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