Sunday, March 20, 2011
The regulation of food and its consumption have always posed constitutional issues - - - recall the "wheat case" of Wickard v. Filburn (1942) - - - and for the last several years, public health advocates, now prominently joined by First Lady Michelle Obama, have highlighted the need for vigorous public policy solutions to the increasing costs of obesity in America. One of the most well-known policies aimed at adjusting Americans’ eating habits is the mandatory disclosure of nutritional information by restaurants. Leading the way on such mandates include several of America’s largest cities, including New York, where Mayor Bloomberg has successfully advocated for the posting of calorie information in many of the city’s eateries; this policy ultimately survived a constitutional challenge.
In West Virginia, the efforts to mandate caloric information have been less successful. During the 2009 Regular Session of the WV State Legislature, a bill was introduced and recommended for passage in the House of Delegates that would have required the posting of calorie counts of menu items in most restaurants throughout the state. The bill died before making it to the House floor, perhaps because of the efforts of former state senator and statewide restaurateur, Oshel Cragio. Craigo, who owns a popular fast-food chain of home-style breakfast restaurants named “Tudor’s Biscuit World,” buttered-up House committee members with free biscuit-style breakfast entrees on the morning in which the nutritional posting bill was being debated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, members chose the biscuits over the bill. However, a provision in the federal health care reform bill will likely require Cragio’s restaurants to post calorie counts.
Mandatory calorie disclosures typically provoke the anti-government sentiments often shared by members of the modern Tea Party, a movement we’ve covered here. The rhetoric often invokes an originalist imagining of Revolutionary-era politics as championing individual liberty against government policies.
Professor Alison Peck at the WVU College of Law challenges the symbolism used by modern day Tea Party by arguing that early-American political groups associated with the Founding Fathers actually had more in common with contemporary advocates of food-consumption regulation than with the small-government Tea Party activists of today.
Peck has posted an abstract of her article, Revisiting the Original “Tea Party”: The Historical Roots of Regulating Food Consumption in America, on ssrn here, but we've had a chance to read the entire draft manuscript. It's a stellar argument supporting her central assertion that “opponents of modern food-consumer regulation misapprehend Revolutionary history. . . .” Manuscript at 5.
Specifically, the "non-importation and non-consumption agreements suggest that the colonists considered private consumption decisions to be fair subjects of coordinated public action where those decisions had negative public consequences.” Id. at 7. Indeed, Peck argues that a close examination of those non-importation agreements and their context suggests that they arose, in principle, from many of the same forces driving food-consumer regulation today. These forces include shared public costs attributable to private consumption decisions; popular rhetoric linking private choices and public costs; sponsorship of restrictions by community leaders and elites; and collectively-enforced consequences for failure to conform. Id.
While the author admits the obvious difference between the modern regulations and the Revolution-era non-importation and non-consumption agreements—that the latter agreements had no force of law—Peck claims that the “disenfranchised colonists came as close as they could to replicating that effect: The increasingly coercive mechanisms of outing and ostracizing free riders, seizing and holding offending goods, and even using violence against offenders gradually served to raise the cost of non-compliance.” Id at 50. Indeed, Professor Peck believes that it was “likely that the colonists would have given their agreements the force of law if they had had the constitutional power to do so.” Id. Supporting this assertion, the author briefly discusses the imposition of the federal excise tax on whiskey in 1791—a tax that led to a brief but serious rebellion in the young nation.
Peck concludes by chiding the modern Tea Party for their claims that food-consumer regulation are “unprecedented or un-American,” as such regulatory forces are “far from novel.” Id. at 54. She writes:
The idea that a society may regulate individual consumption choices in the name of the collective good was expressed as early as the pre-Revolutionary non-consumption and non-importation agreements. Although those agreements were quasi-legal instruments organized and enforced by the colonists outside of formal legislative bodies, their purpose was equivalent: to force accountability for private consumption decisions that had shared social costs.
The powers of governments (federal, state, and local) and individual liberties has been an ongoing balancing act in US legal history. Peck's article will be an important contribution to our assessment of our understanding of that history.
with J. Zak Ritchie
[image: Mary Cassat, American artist, "Afternoon Tea Party," 1891, via]