It is almost unanimously agreed by experts that the trans fat found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is one of the most harmful foods we’re putting in our bodies. Yet, like so much else of what is unhealthy to eat, the stuff tastes so damned good; SO damned good that we each consume about two platefuls of it every year.

Enter the Left. On every occasion that individual desire conflicts with what the majority believe to be the ‘right’ choice, the ‘decent’ choice, the ‘moral’ choice or the ‘healthy’ choice, there are people whose political preference is that your individual desire should be suppressed, forced or coerced to comply with that majority standard. Depending on whether it is a personal or an economic desire, either the political Right or the political Left will have an interest in stopping you – by force – from doing that thing.

This time, the occasion is that people eat foods cooked with trans fat. And the belief is that by forcing people to stop selling you food cooked using trans fat, the kind, benevolent hand of government will thereby protect your heart and your health. They may be right. But are they right? They may be right that a ban on trans fat would prevent much heart disease and increase the health of citizens. But are they right to remove from individuals the freedom to make that call for themselves?

Trans fat is found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, used for frying and baking. The oils are a double-negative in the body: they increase so-called bad cholesterol (LDL) and decrease good cholesterol (HDL), simultaneously. They are an efficient artery-clogger. They remove what is good and replace it with what is bad. They are contributing to heart attacks and Harvard researchers estimate that trans fats contribute to 30,000 deaths in the United States every year. One might as well say that trans fat is the dietary form of the Grim Reaper. Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, New York City health commissioner, said: “New Yorkers are consuming a hazardous, artificial substance…” Of course, for people like Frieden, one of the worst things you could say about a food is that it is ‘artificial’.

And his office, the New York City Board of Health, is holding its first public hearing today on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to make New York the first U.S. city to ban restaurants from serving food containing trans fat. Mayor Bloomberg has made a point of assuring New Yorkers that the measures he is proposing are not paternalistic. “If you want to eat fries, nobody’s taking away your ability to eat fries,” he says. Yet the measure would take away the freedom of New Yorkers to continue to fry the damned fries in the way that they have. He’s saying it isn’t paternalistic, yet it involves taking freedom from the people ‘for their own good.’ He’s saying it isn’t paternalistic, yet he’s effectively telling people what they are allowed to eat and what they are not allowed to eat, ‘for their own good.’ What could be more paternalistic?

At the same time, leftist health groups complain that food companies are slow to adapt to the latest health studies. Sentiments like that are a good indicator as to the reason the aforementioned leftists are running whining lobbies instead of multinational corporations. Their skewed worldviews are responsible for this kind of complaint.

Their worldview tells them that McDonald’s should be responsible for the health of society. In reality, McDonald’s biggest responsibility is to its customers, who happen to enjoy its food and don’t want the company to sacrifice the taste of its food to satisfy a bunch of meddling, socialist bums whose obsessive compulsive disorder is rivalled only by their asinine self-righteousness. Their worldview tells them that hamburgers are unhealthy; in reality it is only the excessive consumption of burgers that is unhealthy. Their worldview tells them that the food we’re eating is making us all very unhealthy; the reality is that the best measure of our collective health is our mortality rate, which is the best it’s ever been… burgers and all. Their worldview tells them that the latest health studies should be read and acted upon in the way evangelicals read the bible.

But one of the problems with deciding corporate policy or making New York City law based on the latest health studies is that the conclusions of those studies change on a common basis. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil was invented in the 1900s and was believed to be a healthy substitute for natural fat like butter and lard. Just 16 short years ago, leftist health groups pressured McDonald’s to do something about saturated fat in their food. And they did: in 1990 the restaurant chain switched to cooking with what was then thought to be “heart healthy” partially hydrogenated oil. Now they are changing again.

And that’s to be welcomed. McDonald’s has already initiated a change toward zero-trans fat cooking oil on which we can expect an announcement any time. There is a pilot currently under way in its Denmark restaurants, which will importantly gauge public reaction to taste, flavour and so on. KFC announced this morning that it is switching entirely, that its rollout of zero-trans fat cooking oil will be completed by April 2007, and that many of its 5500 American restaurants have already switched to low linolenic soybean oil, replacing the partially hydrogenated stuff. Wendy’s made similar announcements recently, as have other food companies. Trans fat is on borrowed time already, without the meddling of the behemoth government machine or the griping of useless, paranoid anti-corporates.

I believe it’s important that I adjust my diet as I learn more about the properties of the food I eat in order to help improve my health. But please note that I can speak only for myself in that assessment; not because I don’t believe others should be equally as judicious, but because it is right that my sphere of control extends only as far as myself and my kids. Experts are speaking on health issues all the time, and I believe it is prudent to listen. But once one takes the step of supporting proposals that force other people to comply with one’s code of conduct, he has gone beyond the realm of responsibility given by his rationality; he is now forcibly removing sovereignty from another individual and is telling him what he may and may not do.

What is proposed in New York City would cross that line. It is not the place of government to force changes in our diet ‘for our own good’. It is the place of government to protect against such infringements of our liberty, and it is the place of the individual to decide what to eat for themselves. As people listen to experts, they will make choices accordingly, and so too will the restaurants that cater to them.

So I oppose the New York City trans fat ban in principal. But there are also at least two good, practical reasons that the ban may not be a welcome development in any case. First, people are probably eating much less trans fat already than what is touted by the advocates of the ban. Their widely used estimates are based on old data: that the average American takes in 2.6 percent of their diet in trans fat. But Dr. Lichtenstein, a nutritionist at Tufts University, says that the current intake is probably much lower, at maybe 1.5 percent. Also, much of the interventionist research into dietary trans fat was done with subjects whose intake was as much as 10 percent. At much lower levels, it becomes very difficult to measure what further benefits could be seen from an outright ban such as the one proposed in New York City.

Second, the ban will likely not actually remove trans fat from all food in New York City. As with other bans, there will be an underground economy for food cooked with partially hydrogenated oil, some will simply ignore the ban, and New Yorkers will not stand for making a criminal out of the guy on the street corner selling hot dogs. Making Mr Dog a criminal sound ridiculous? Well, to use an old computer term: Garbage In, Garbage Out (GIGO). Governments do not routinely make sensible, fair, freedom-honouring laws. They instead paint with broad, coercive legislative brushes that make little sense when their most idiosyncratic judgements are considered.

To say that the trans fat ban will save even some lives is to fancy, arrogantly, that those people have been saved from themselves, and saved from their own choices. Nobody needs to eat trans fat, nor saturated fat for that matter. When I consume trans fat, I consume it because I want to. To claim that people should have their free actions pre-empted by the state ‘for their own good’ is to claim that they are not, in fact, individuals at all, but that they owe their very purpose to everyone else. They are not free to pursue their own ends and live their lives as they see fit; they are incapable of rational decision-making and the collective has the ability to circumvent their free choices anytime it feels like it.

That implication is more disgusting than any artery full of cholesterol.

John Wright