South Los Angeles city council recently began an initiative to reduce the number of fast food restaurants in the South L.A area by denying new business permits requested by fast food establishments. The council’s goal is to encourage healthy eating by decreasing access to unhealthful options. According to the city council, restricting the amount of fast food restaurants will have a positive impact on citizen’s health. However, the city council’s actions, no matter how genuine their desire to improve citizen’s lives, will be just another case where social planners fail to engineer a “better man” through the prohibition of his vices.
The council hopes that under their new policy, consumers will eat more healthful food since fewer unhealthful choices will leave room in the market for a greater number of healthful food choices. However, the politicians have not considered the unintended consequences of how the restaurant industry and consumers will respond to a decrease in the amount of fast food.
Even though fast food and healthful food are both “food,” the two goods are not close substitutes. One does not receive the same satisfaction from eating a deep fried chicken sandwich as one does from eating a 100% organic, cooked without trans-fat piece of chicken, so it is unlikely that consumers eating junk food will immediately begin eating healthful food. Reducing the amount of fast food restaurants will do just that- reduce the amount of fast food restaurants, yet junk food is available from almost every other establishment that sells food. In fact, because consumers will not be able to access as much fast food as before, traditional restaurants and grocery delis have an added incentive to profit off of consumer’s preference for fast food by selling a substitute.
The city council has also failed to consider the potential “intensification” of unhealthful food that could take place as a result of the new policy. During prohibition period in the 1920’s , alcohol suppliers sold moonshine because it is more concentrated than other types of alcohol making easier to transport and more profitable. Likewise, the prohibition of drugs has arguably fueled the development of more intense drugs like methamphetamine. Just like the entrepreneurs that sold illegal alcohol and sell illegal drugs, fast food restaurants in Los Angeles will expand the variety of unhealthful items they sell and consumers will buy more of it in one transaction.
Consider visiting a fast food restaurant in South Los Angeles, after waiting in line for a longer than normal amount of time to get inside the only fast food restaurant in the area, the last thing a consumer is going to do is order the 200 calorie salad that he can buy at any other restaurant. The opportunity cost of buying a healthful item at a fast food restaurant has actually increased, effectively intensifying the consumption of junk food in fast food restaurants.
Of course, fast food restaurants are far from powerless corporations completely subject to government coercion. They are usually franchises of large multinational corporations with vast resources and big lobbying departments. However, the restaurants are not putting up much of an opposition to the Los Angeles City council. That is because they would prefer to operate in an environment with less competition. The government wants to reduce fast food restaurants to encourage healthy lifestyles while current fast food restaurants want to operate in a market with less competition. As a result of these aligned incentives, South L.A’s new policy has been swiftly approved with little attention to real effect it has on consumers and obesity.
Reducing obesity requires more than simply not eating fast food. Even if the City Council could effectively reduce the amount of junk food available to consumers, which is highly doubtful, it would not necessarily make the population healthier. Reducing obesity requires learning to balance a diet and to exercise properly. Thinking involves reasoning and reflection on experiences and sometimes mistakes; an environment with less fast food does not provide people with an incentive to think about their health. As citizens, it is our duty to remind well-meaning government officials that good intentions do not equal good results, especially when they treat us like children unable to make our own decisions.