Ezra Klein has a weird post up today accusing libertarians of being hypocritical in their opposition to laws requiring restaurants to post calorie information:
It’s a bit rich to watch libertarians and associated anti-government types oppose a regulation that gives consumers more useful information. This, after all, is how markets are supposed to work best. Consumers have better information, can pursue their preferences in a more coherent manner, and the market can provide, adapt, and innovate in response. Take trans fats, which have disappeared from just about every food save margarine now that they need to be listed on the package. If caloric information was posted, a lot of currently popular items would become unpopular (the awesome blossom, say), and restaurants would innovate towards lower calorie, but still filling, foods. In the absence of that information, the incentives to do so are weak. It’s one of those soft ways of making the market work better towards a social end: We agree that people should be healthier, people agree that they want to be healthier, and all this would do is give them the information to make healthy decisions. It would not actually bar any foods from production or sale. But because there’s some odd desire among some on the right to lionize unhealthy decisions (smoking!) and defend existing business models, whatever they may be, to the death, this regulation faces a steep uphill climb.
Information is a market good, too. It’s not a perfect market and one can reasonably argue that in some cases mandating label inclusions is for the public good, but more information isn’t always an improvement. Nor is government always better than the market at deciding what information ought to be provided; recall the mandated GM labels that were roundly ignored in the Netherlands. Corruption by lobbying is also an issue, as with Diageo’s manipulation of low-carb wine labeling and its current push to force nutritional labeling on the entire alcohol industry.
Requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts might indeed have the effects that Ezra hopes it would by making people think twice about what they eat and the social benefits might be worthwhile, but there’s nothing unlibertarian in being skeptical of mandates for information that we’re not sure customers are demanding in the first place.
Update: See Megan McArdle, too.