Why social engineering doesn’t work

by Sonny Bunch on December 22, 2011

Megan McArdle has a long, interesting post on why pilot projects fail to scale up tied to the failure of an initiative in Los Angeles schools to get kids to eat healthier. “It seems that the LA Unified School District recently revamped its lunch menus to eliminate fattening standbys like chicken nuggets, nachos, and flavored milk.  The resulting meals are much healthier, but apparently also much less appetizing.  As a result, participation in the program is down, and the LA Times found students replacing the Beef Jambalaya and lentil cutlets with things like Cheetos,” she writes, then explains the problems of scalability, the notoriously unreliable nature of product testing, etc.

Allow me to suggest that an additional problem with programs like LAUSD’s is that liberal social engineering is, usually, poorly thought out. For instance, consider the recent fight in Washington, D.C. over soda taxes. “‘It’s wrong for the government to stand idle in the face of an epidemic of obesity that’s hurting the quality of life and the health of our residents,’ says Mary Cheh, the Council member who has proposed the tax, ‘when we have policy choices in front of us that can materially affect the problem.'”

Soda is now taxed in the city, to the tune of 6%. So this should totally reduce obesity, right? Except the city also taxes diet soda at the same rate. Instead of trying to think of a mildly clever solution — say, by nudging people toward drinking calorie-free diet sodas — the city council simply implemented a blanket tax that will have no effect on soda consumption (but will bloat the city council’s coffers).

My point, I guess, is that government should get out of the business of telling us what to drink, how to eat, and the best way to live our lives — especially with dummies like Mary Cheh ineffectively running the show.

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