State Representative Peter Koutoujian's proposal to ban trans fats from Massachusetts restaurants has met with predictable howls of outrage from those insisting that the government has no right to tell them what to eat. I find this outpouring of libertarianism amusing because history shows that one of the primary functions of Boston's government was, in fact, the regulation of the food supply to ensure consumers received what they paid for and that the food they bought was healthy. This runs contrary to the libertarian belief in a pre-big government Eden where people lived freely in a state of nature, unencumbered by governmental snares. Sam Adams (the brewer and patriot) would have known and understood the beer brewing regulations laid down by the Town of Boston and Bostonians would have understood these regulations as part of the proper scope of government.
Taking a look at The Charter and Ordinances of the City of Boston together with the Acts of the Legislature Relating to the City, Boston, 1834, we find ready examples of food supply regulation:
"That no person hereafter shall bring into the City, or have in his possession for sale, or shall sell or offer for sale within the City, any vegetables whatever, (excepting green peas in the pods, and green corn in the inner husks,) which have not been previously divested of such parts or appendages as are not commonly used for food..."
"And no person shall sell, nor offer for sale in the City, fish of any kind, unless the same be kept in covered stalls, fish boxes or other houses, which shall always be clean and in good order, or in clean covered carts or boxes well secured from the rays of the sun. And no person shall sell and deliver from any stall, fish box, cart or other place, any fish of any kind except salmon and shad, and also flounders, smelts, and other small fish, until the same shall have been cleansed of their entrails and refuse part..."
"All soft bread, whether baked in loaves or biscuit, which shall be exposed to sale by any Baker, or other person, shall be sold by weight".
In the final analysis, banning trans fats doesn't limit what consumers can buy to eat. I can't think of a single product that will disappear from shelves and menus if trans-fats are banned. There are less harmful natural susbtances that can replace trans fats. Kentucky Fried Chicken has changed its frying oil without incident. Banning trans fats simply limits what can be added to your food. This is in the spirit of such landmark legislation as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 which was passed "For preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein, and for other purposes."
Look at this another way: Coca-Cola took the cocaine out of its formula. Lydia Pinkham of Lynn, Massachusetts made a small fortune selling her Vegetable Compound, which, unbeknownst to those taking it, was 19% alcohol, a fact which appeared nowhere on the label. One can only imagine what the good temperance women who took Pinkham's "medicine" would have thought if they had known that. In the late 19th century one could readily find medicine for children with opium in it. I bet Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup worked wonders on the rambunctious child. The chicken littles who claim that getting rid of trans fats is a big brother ban on a burger and fries need to do a little more research into the history of additives in our foods and medicines. Regulation and truth in labelling is nothing new.
As this argument moves down the food chain, the libertarians are becoming increasingly irrational. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, because libertarians (most of whom don't really understand libertarianism except to say "the government can't tell me what to do", but that's another problem for another day) will argue that there is no such thing as the common good, only individual self interest and that the free market (yet another problem for another day) will eventually demand that food processors and preparers move away from trans-fats. I suppose the free market would eventually demand food processors and preparers remove trace amounts of arsenic and lead from your food as well, but are you willing to take that chance? After all, trace amounts aren't deadly, they simply aren't good for you, which is what Mass GOP News says about trans-fats. Unfortunately for the faux libertarians, Massachusetts was founded on the notion of a common good and mutual dependency and that impulse has survived to this day. The Puritans regulated Boston's food supply and they're hardly what you would call big government liberals.