Too much information

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

Should we free market types support New York City’s law mandating the prominent posting of calorie counts? No, of course not. Yet the idea has traction. Here, for example, Ezra Klein deigns to give a serious response to Jacob Sullum’s recent column:

His article on the subject basically makes two points: The first is that consumers don’t want this, because if they did, then the market would already have provided it. As Sullum says, “If customers really were clamoring for conspicuous calorie counts, restaurants would provide them voluntarily.” That sentence competes for space with a poll showing 84 percent of Californians support caloric labeling requirements, and the basic reality the article is responding to: Democratically elected legislators who depend on the favor of voters for their jobs are the ones trying to pass a bill. Because they think it popular. The idea that public preferences only have legitimacy if they’re strong enough to be heard atop the clamor of the market is an exceedingly odd one.

Well, ok. But the notion that conducting a poll is a more reliable way to gauge consumer preferences is even odder. Answering a question in a poll is not like ordering lunch in a restaurant. Facing no trade-offs, there’s no reason not to give the publicly virtuous answer. Of course most people will say they support posting caloric information. Faced with the actual trade-offs of less menu space, higher costs for testing new products (more significant for small chains than for large), and the sometimes unpleasant reminder of how dense some food is, they might not actually prefer the one-size-fits-all rule of posting calorie counts prominently on the menu. If 84% of consumers were really demanding it, you would think that at least one restaurant chain would have filled this demand. The fact that none has done so voluntarily suggests that the mandate is excessive. (And what of the rights of business owners? They don’t merit concern, apparently.)

The alternative is not zero information. Chain restaurants are already responding to consumer demand for nutritional information without mandated displays. Many have been making it available on their websites or in literature within the restaurant, readily accessible for interested consumers. Some, like Subway, tout the healthiness of their menu and prominently advertise it. Others, like Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr., flaunt their excess. In between are hundreds of other restaurants that highlight their healthier offerings or entrées that comply with popular diets. There’s no compelling reason to think that the trend toward greater transparency won’t continue or that this multiplicity of approaches is somehow inferior to the single right way dictated by local government.

We can be sure, however, that mandated displays will overshoot the mark in at least some cases. Most people don’t want to know exactly what they’re eating all the time. As Sullum notes, “There’s a difference between informing people and nagging them.” Is that really such a difficult concept to grasp? Klein writes frequently about DC’s often decadent dining options. I wonder if he thinks his enjoyment of these restaurants would be increased if each item on the menu had its number of calories written next to it. Would his experience be enhanced by knowing that a nearly identical version of each dish had been previously sent to a lab for testing in a bomb calorimeter? Does he really want to be reminded of how many calories are in that pork belly?

I sure as hell don’t. Sometimes I just want to indulge. And while there are obvious reasons for limiting the calorie mandate to chains that can (presumably) afford it, there’s a definite classist tinge to these regulations. The New York City Council won’t be telling Mario Batali to put calorie counts on his menus anytime soon. But if you prefer to indulge with a Big Mac or Chipotle, you don’t get the privilege of doing so without being hit over the head with the nutritional numbers your keepers have decided you ought to be considering.

“It is, again, just information, for chains and customers to use as they wish,” Klein writes. “There’s something vaguely impressive about watching people prove themselves so anti-government that they cease to be pro-functioning markets, but it’s not a really good reason to scotch this plan.” Information is a market good too. There’s nothing inconsistent about libertarians arguing that the amount of information provided by our current markets, however imperfect they may be, is preferable to the distastefully paternalist excess mandated by these regulations.

Jacob Grier

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53 Responses to “Too much information”

  1. #1 |  Brief Essays With Pictures » Blog Archive » Markets Suffer From Information Overload…Wait, What? | 

    […] an idiot, I waded waist deep into a debate at The Agitator’s website about information in the marketplace. The specifics of the debate […]

  2. #2 |  Les | 

    Cigarettes have never been advertised as being healthy? Really?

    I didn’t say that, but I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer. After 1960, they stopped advertising themselves as healthy because they knew everyone knew it wasn’t true by then. And in the decades to come it was so commonly known that they knew they’d be prosecuted if they did so.

  3. #3 |  Calorie counts come to Oregon - Crispy on the Outside | 

    […] the information is often available already, even if not prominently posted on the menu. As I wrote for The Agitator in August: The alternative is not zero information. Chain restaurants are already responding to […]