Something Different, Continued

Yesterday’s post on the pros and cons of labeling foods with genetically-altered ingredients led to a back-and-forth discussion that exemplifies the real-world problems of policymaking, where matters are seldom black and white.

The discussion illustrated a contemporary reality: given the increasing complexity of the world we inhabit, in many policy domains, few people will fully understand the issues involved. Think climate change, poverty, education, healthcare…and food labeling.

Miriam’s comment raised many of the potential pitfalls involved in labeling; as she noted, in an effort to give people relevant information, we may instead end up misinforming them. In particular, her question “how far do we drill down?” is key. How much information is enough, and how much is too much? How are we defining our terms? What do we include/exclude?

Mort underscores the economic motives of the stakeholders in this particular debate, reminding us of the increasing role that money and influence play in our policymaking, often to the detriment of accuracy and the public good. (The climate change debate is an example.)

What do consumers have a right to know about the products they purchase? What do they need to know?

On the one hand, the vendor/manufacturers’ “trust us” is not only insufficient, it is contrary to the premises of our regulatory structure. On the other hand, both Miriam and Mort are undeniably correct ¬†when they point out that most consumers do not have the background and scientific training needed to evaluate technical information accurately and will either over-react to it or ignore it.

Most of us shake our heads or laugh when the stewardess demonstrates how to buckle a seat belt, or when we read the label on a ladder that warns us against falling off.

We don’t need a nanny state that overprotects us. We do need relevant¬†information that allows us to make informed choices. Deciding where to draw that line–deciding what information should be conveyed–is the hard part.

Yesterday’s exchange reminded me of the old story of the village rabbi who is approached by two men to settle an argument. The first tells his side, and the Rabbi says, “you’re right.” The second tells his side, and once again the Rabbi says, “You’re right.” An onlooker protests: they can’t both be right! To which the Rabbi says, “You, too, are right!”

Policy is complicated. Simple answers and binary choices don’t make for good policy.

Maybe that’s one reason we don’t have much good policy these days.

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