What’s the Matter With Chicago?

Thom Lambert —  29 June 2006

When was my beloved City of Chicago – a refuge for such liberty lovers as Milton Friedman, Richard Epstein, and F.A. Hayek – overtaken by the Lifestyle Gestapo? First it was the smoking ban. Then, the ban on foie-gras. Now, the city’s most powerful alderman has proposed that the city ban the sale of foods containing trans-fats (e.g., Kentucky Fried Chicken).

I must give credit to Prof. Bainbridge, who predicted this sort of thing. (Money quote: “Back when the professional do-gooders started turning government into society’s nanny with smoking bans, some of us warned that they would go after alcohol next and then food. We were mocked as Cassandras preoccupied with visions of slippery slopes. Who’s laughing now?”)

Advocates of a trans-fat ban argue that their position is justified because there is no safe level of trans-fat consumption. But this argument proves too much: There is no safe level of many, many activities, yet we do not ban them. For example, there’s no safe level of whitewater rafting, or snowskiing, or automobile driving, or sex (heart attacks!), or football playing, or…well, you get the idea. Every instance of participation in these (and practically all) activities involves some risk. Yet, most of us would oppose significant restrictions (much less bans) on these activities, because each of them produces benefit as well as risk.

Well guess what — so does trans-fat consumption. And so does smoking. I eat KFC’s original recipe because it tastes better than non-trans-fat-containing alternatives. I have thus decided that I’m willing to accept a cost (some measure of risk) in order to obtain an even greater benefit. Similarly, lots of folks smoke, despite the well-known risks, because they perceive the benefits they receive to outweigh the risks they incur.

Now, I think those smokers are crazy. It seems to me that only a fool would subject himself to the significant health risks smoking creates (not to mention the yellow teeth, bad breath, and unsightly lip lines). But I’m not privy to the benefit side of the balance. Since I have no idea how much pleasure an individual smoker gets out of lighting up, I cannot say that there would be more happiness in the world if smoking were banned. Similarly, since Alderman Burke has no idea how much I like KFC, he cannot know if he’s making the world a better place by banning trans-fats. Lacking such assurance, he should butt out.

There may, though, be a silver lining to Alderman Burke’s campaign to ban trans-fats: It may force the non-smoking, non-foie gras-eating, trans-fat consuming majority of Chicagoans to finally stand up to all this government meddling.

As my former college roommate, Randy Heinig, told me:

First they came for the smokers, and I didn’t speak up, for I am not a smoker. Then they came for the foie gras eaters, and I didn’t speak up, for I don’t eat foie gras. Now they’ve come for my french fries and, well, there are lots of annoyed people to speak up…hopefully.


Thom Lambert


I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.

6 responses to What’s the Matter With Chicago?


    Only one thing gives me hope that the Food Gestapo will fail where the smoking police succeeded: fat people are a protected class in this country. It will be interesting to see which impule wins: the nanny impulse to save us from ourselves, or the PC impulse to save obese people from stigmatization. It will be hard to ban fat while telling fat people “you’re fine just the way you are” and protecting them under the ADA.


    I’m just glad that the worst of the nanny-staters congregate in cities leaving us suburbanites (mostly) alone. Though I wonder how much longer they can increase regulations, laws and taxes before the city becomes a wasteland.
    Chicago doesn’t seem to be suffering that fate, though I have often wondered what benefit businesses have to operate there.

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