Nanny-Cities Know What’s Best: No More Drive-Thrus!

P. Gardner Goldsmith | October 22, 2019
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Members of many generations likely are familiar with the seemingly dark-hearted, perpetually gray, totalitarian stop-motion television character, The Burgher Meister Meisterburger, from “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, and they probably can hear his voice (performed by Paul Frees ) now, barking that classic, Germanic-tinged command: “NO MORE TOISS!” He was the antithesis of the anarchic, fun-loving Kris Kringle, a cypher for fascist Nazi Germany, and an iconic adversary.

But if he was a fascist adversary, why do so many city politicians around the US appear to see him as an exemplar? Why are so many municipal Meisters intent on capping the fun of fast-food drive-thrus?

As noted for Reason by Baylen Linnekin “cities in at least four states” have adopted bans of new drive-thrus:

In Minneapolis, which banned new fast-food drive-thru windows in August, Today says proponents claim ‘curbing access to even faster fast food may help aid in reversing urban obesity rates, while also helping to improve road traffic accidents.’ While I have exactly no idea what an ‘improve[d]’ traffic accident looks like, the first clause in the previous sentence gets at the heart of the matter: fast-food critics are using fake nutritional and environmental arguments to make it more difficult for consumers to eat fast-food.

It's enough to make one lose his appetite for news.

But not so fast! (Pun intended.)

Let’s turn that frown upside-down! Let’s make it a “happy” meal! A news story like this is actually an opportunity. Thanks to Linnekin’s report we have the chance to see that the term “Nanny State” is about government in general, including cities, and not just the state governments or the feds.

And we can “take away” a few longer-lasting historical and economic lessons, thanks to this “drive-thru” window opening for us.

First, a curious bit of important trivia, if one can mix the terms without being oxymoronic.

Many travelers through the drive-thru window of political economics might not know that the Marxist/Rousseauian term “bourgeoisie” so many contemporary political collectivists bandy about actually finds its linguistic root in the term “burgess”, which, in turn, is derived from the German “Burgher”: a man who was essentially a municipal “mayor” appointed by royal decree in the Middle Ages. In his "Communist Manifesto" -- the poorly edited, logically-empty, ethically vacant attempt to paint business owners and private property as wicked and exploitative of “the workers” (as if business owners don’t work) -- Marx lifted the Medieval hatred of the landed gentry and Burghers (burgesses, or “bourgeoisie” to Rousseau before him), and thrust it onto the shoulders of the very people who had helped destroy the old royal peerage system and opened up new opportunity to anyone willing to work and save. He foist the term “bourgeoisie” onto business owners and “capitalists”.

Think about that next time you see the Burgher Meister Meisterburger sing about banning fun toys. Nobody liked the Burgher Meister, not even the despicable Karl Marx.

But it sure does seem as if the politicians running Minneapolis (and Los Angeles, among others) like the command and control world of Mr. Meisterburger, even if they don’t have the German accents.

Is it just paternalism? After all, the argument that stopping future drive-thrus will curb an obesity “problem” that's called a “concern for everyone” (because politicians already socialize medical care) certainly seems to ascribe a lot of power to the restaurants, rather than the individuals who become overweight. If it’s the availability of “fast food” that’s the problem, why not ban microwaves? Why not inspect home kitchens to make sure that the walk from fridge to stove is 100 yards and the walk from stove to table is a mile? How about mandating that all new restaurants and their clientele not only go without drive-thrus, but that they build really, really big parking lots, and allot parking opportunities according to an inverse linear scale – the bigger you are, the farther away you must park?

Indeed, what these moves by city politicians indicate is that there’s more here than a lesson about royally-powerful “Burghers” and burgers, there’s more than a lesson about “nanny-statism” and flimsy collectivist health rationales. There’s some economics and some history to pick up on our way out.

In economics, the regulatory power of any state agency is usually used to offer advantages to specially-favored friends or business associates of the politicians. Those cronies who play this game are called “Rent Seekers”, for their drive to make money not by offering a benefit to a willing customer, but by using the armed power of the state to block competition, allowing them to keep prices higher, thus making money without having to satisfy the consumer. Typically, it’s the established businesses that game the “regulatory” (i.e. political threat) system, and there are all kinds of ways politicians help them, including tariffs against foreign competition, licensing laws that make is financially impossible for cheap new startups to enter the field, legalese in regulations, zoning, taxes, or outright bans on “new” entrants – the latter being precisely what these “City Fathers and Mothers” are doing with bans against future drive-thrus.

They are showering unfair advantages on existing fast-food places that already have convenient drive-thrus.

But that’s on the city scale. As briefly noted above, this problem manifests on a national level as well, and it often goes unnoticed by the consumers who, when their additional expenditures are aggregated, lose billions of Dollars a year because of the regulatory state.

Have you heard about how the “federal government saved America from tainted meat” via the “Meat Inspection Act of 1906, and that thanks to the collectivist Upton Sinclair’s story “The Jungle”, which supposedly “exposed the horrors of Chicago meat-packing plants”?

It’s bogus. Very bogus. On two levels. First, as legendary economist and historian Murray Rothbard wrote:

Unfortunately for the myth, the drive for federal meat inspection actually began more than two decades earlier and was launched mainly by the big meat packers themselves. The spur was the urge to penetrate the European market for meat, something which the large meat packers thought could be done if the government would certify the quality of meat and thereby make American meat more highly rated abroad. Not coincidentally, as in all Colbertist (Jean-Baptiste Colbert, economic advisor to French King Louis XIV) mercantilist legislation over the centuries, a governmentally-coerced upgrading of quality would serve to cartelize — to lower production, restrict competition, and raise prices to the consumers. It, furthermore, socializes the cost of inspection to satisfy consumers, by placing the burden upon the taxpayers instead of on the producers themselves.

In fact, European governments were using excuses of “foreign meat is dirty” to protect their own domestic business cronies, so the US government and its cronies started their own little “labelling” game to work as propaganda against it, and, as Rothbard notes, to block lower-prices US upstarts from battling the established big-wigs.

Rent-seeking, all the way. Or to put use another economic term, “Regulatory Capture”.

And so, over the years, from the unconstitutional origin of the US Department of Agriculture in 1862 under Abe Lincoln, to 1906’s “Bureau of Chemistry”, renamed the “Food and Drug Administration in 1930, and onwards, the US government has become more and more and more and more involved with running a Nanny-state, plutocratic, autocratic, mercantilist, semi-fascistic regulatory royal decree system.

All “for your own good” – or, for the good of big friends of fat-cat politicians and bureaucrats.

Heck, they even gave us the carbs/corn-dominated “Food Pyramid” in 1992, a set of “eating guidelines” from the USDA that, as more people are learning, came as a direct result of agricultural interests connected to corn and grain winning the lobbying game set up by the government, while meat suppliers lost and “animal fat” was deemed demonic for nearly two decades.

Thanks to this new revelation about drive-thrus, we get to enjoy some real take-aways. We get to learn, and see mercantilism, Rent-Seeking, and “nanny-statism” from a larger, longer-term perspective.

When we do, we see that much of the food industry has been the “toy” of politicians and bureaucrats since the time of Abe Lincoln.

And, like all forms of government control, that’s not healthy.