Stay away from my seasoning

Can you believe our governments intend to make us eat less salt? Have they nothing better to do?

OK, less sodium. There really is a public-sector initiative to reduce my MSG intake, as insulting as it is useless. (For the record, I also don't eat pure sodium; I hate the way it bursts into flames in water.)

Such a story certainly makes me shake my head at periodic fulminations about a hard-right conservative counterrevolution in Canada. This initiative came from a meeting of health ministers in Newfoundland that included federal Tory Leona Aglukkaq and four right-of-centre provincial representatives. So I ask you: What sort of conservative thinks the state should be telling people what to eat? For that matter, what kind of liberal thinks the state should be evicted from the bedrooms of the nation only to move into the kitchen and mess with the condiments?

All of them, apparently. Members of our political class clearly believe they have the right, duty and ability to make us better people, including at the table.

On reflection, I'm reluctant to say they actually think these things. I have never heard any of them articulate any moral theory or even endorse publicly the idea that the best people may change the displeasing dietary habits of the vulgar masses. (When Genesis says we are our brother's keeper, the point is don't slay him, then deny all knowledge of the whereabouts of his corpse; it's not a mandate to fiddle with his spice rack.) And I know of no political philosophy that asserts that the state has the duty to improve our diets by force, nor do I find it anywhere in our Constitution. Let there be no mistake on this point. Government, as George Washington said, "is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force."

Few people would accuse our politicians of putting on a conspicuous display of reason or eloquence. But, behind their platitudes, the plan is to use the coercive power of the state to require manufacturers and sellers to do or refrain from doing certain things on pain of fine or imprisonment and thus interfere with our liberty to buy and eat the food we want and feed our children as we choose.

Actually there is no plan, which brings me to the third issue: politicians' incapacity to do this thing they have no right to do. As one news story said, "The majority of Canadians' salt intake comes from packaged or restaurant food, but the government has no plans to enforce new laws or regulations that would force industry to comply." A plan. You're right. I'll need a plan. That's some realization for people with decades of experience in public life.

It gets worse. In revealing her mission to desalinate the populace, Aglukkaq said that, if we're going to sustain health care in the long term in Canada, then "equally important to treatment when people fall ill is to prevent people from getting ill in the first place."

Back in April 1998, I ridiculed then-health minister Allan Rock for ordering us to exercise more because "if over the next five years we could reduce the level of inactivity by 10 per cent, we would save about $5 billion in health care." Sure, if people didn't get sick, we could make socialized health care work with better planning. And, if you had some ham, we could make ham sandwiches ... if you had any bread. Rediscovering this fatuity 12 years later is pathetic.

Should we eat less salt? Of course. We should eat less everything. I treasure a 1949 radio ad for Pepsi touting "two full glasses of sparkling Pepsi from one big 12-ounce bottle." Serve a kid six ounces of soda today and watch his jowls quiver with baffled indignation as he reaches for his Pail-O-Pop.

Muffin tops? You've got to be kidding me. But what has any of this to do with government, that vital institution to which we delegate some of our right of self-preservation so our efforts to live co-operatively together will not be overwhelmed by violence or fraud?

Unfortunately, the politicians' contrary attitude that they can make us pull our socks up over our swollen, flabby ankles by shouting "Hey you hypertense fatties, put down the shaker and back away slowly" is not merely an insulting distraction. Such self-satisfied haughtiness stands squarely in the way of the humility increasingly necessary to clean up their own act on budgets and deficits, crucial government functions like defence and criminal justice or for that matter decorum in Question Period. On the last point, arrogance may imagine itself to be grand, but it is generally petty and vindictive. Hence the scornful lunge for your fork.

Where do these politicians claim they get the authority to meddle with the dietary choices of grown men and women? And do they really think they have nothing better to do?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson