Often, I hear that the standard American diet cannot pose any kind of health risk, given that Americans are living longer than ever. This argument is wrong, and a while back, I thought of an analogy that might help explain why.
Statists of various stripes often offer a pseudo-self-interested argument for the myriad controls and welfare instituted in recent decades. They claim that the controls prevent soulless corporations and greedy bastards from stomping all over us little guys. Even welfare is claimed to benefit us, because it prevents poor from revolting by keeping them content. So without these government interventions, the argument says, we’d be far worse off. Moreover, clearly such interventions aren’t stifling innovation… just look at the iPhones, streaming video, and other awesome new gadgets at our disposal now. Sure, these statists claim, any more freedom and capitalism would only make us worse off!
However, the fact is that we’re better off in spite of those government controls and regulations. Productive people keep fighting against the tide of government to create awesome new products and services. But surely they’d be doing even more — and hence, we’d be so much better off — if people didn’t have to fight against the government in the process.
Similarly, I think that we’re living longer today because of advances in medical technology, e.g. in cancer treatment and heart surgery. Yet the tide of bad diet is working hard against that trend. We’d likely see even more advances in longevity — not to mention in quality-of-life (which I think is pretty abysmal for many people) — if people ate better.
In essence, the broken window fallacy is often at work in people’s thinking about diet, just as much as it’s at work in people’s thinking about politics and economics. It’s just too easy to ignore what might have been, if we’d taken a different path.