Demolition Men

What is the meaning of life? It’s a tough question. While there may not be a broad consensus about the specifics, there is definitely more to life than just breathing. Lives are not simply measured in years. Neither John F. Kennedy nor John Lennon lived to see their 50th birthdays. As William Wallace reminded his troops in the movie Braveheart, “Every man dies, not every man really lives.” The real Wallace was about 33 years old when he was executed. (And by most accounts, so was Jesus.)

Each of these men experienced more in their brief years on Earth than most octogenarians. As they made their bold choices in life, they knowingly assumed considerable risks to their safety. Whether taking on the communists, the English army, or even the “establishment”, such endeavors rarely lead to increased longevity. But for those that make it into the history books, there are more important things in life than just surviving as long as possible.

Maybe there is something to that. Perhaps to truly live, one must experience love, joy, pleasure, beauty, or enlightenment. However, these all come at a price. Love can lead to a broken heart. Wisdom is often the product of our most dreadful failures. Excitement and danger usually go hand in hand. Given these tradeoffs, what is the right balance between living a long life and a fulfilling one?

The meaning of life may never be clear. So for now, let us focus on a simpler question: What is the meaning of food? More specifically, what is the purpose of a hamburger? Seriously. Why do people eat Big Macs?

The medical answer is straightforward. The human body requires sustenance in the form of edible food. This food provides energy in the form of calories as well as essential amino acids, lipids, vitamins, and minerals that are incorporated into living tissue. Doctors, scientists and nutritionists work continuously to determine the optimal diet regimen that will keep the human machine running as well as possible for as long as possible. If their research is correct, people eat too much food in general, and too many Big Macs in particular.

This, of course, assumes that people want to live long and healthy lives above all other considerations. Again, if longevity were always our top priority, Wallace would never have fought against the English. Nobody would enlist for military service. Nestle would sell far fewer candy bars, and nobody would ever “super-size” their McDonald’s meals.

But this has not happened. Big Macs sell even better than hotcakes (another nutritionally lacking McDonald’s product). The company offers healthier alternatives, such as salads introduced in the 1980’s. There was even a “McLean Deluxe” burger made with 91% fat-free beef. Yet most McD’s customers still buy the high-fat burgers and greasy fries, in spite of clearly posted nutrition and ingredient information in every U.S. location. (This information has been on display for the past 12 years.)

So why do people still eat Big Macs? Here’s a news flash: Big Macs are cheap, convenient, and they taste pretty darn good. Sure, nutrition matters, but it is just one consideration among many. We are free to choose, to weigh the pros and cons for ourselves. Some people choose a life of tofu and yoga while others choose cheeseburgers and television.

Yet according to a recent lawsuit filed against McDonald’s, that is simply too much liberty. The suit claims that as a matter of law, restaurants cannot aggressively market their food unless it is nutritious. It assumes that people are irretrievably weak-willed and must be protected from themselves. To paraphrase the argument loosely: “Dear courts, please protect us from our liberty. We should not be permitted to make choices that we will regret later, no matter how foreseeable the outcomes may be. Parents are incapable of ensuring proper nutrition for their children when McDonald’s hamburgers are more appealing than the law should allow.”

Unfortunately, it is conceivable that the plaintiffs will win. That would bring American society one step closer to the joyless future depicted in “Demolition Man”. In the film, fatty foods, salt, and even sex are illegal. In fact, everything “bad for you” is illegal. The pursuit of happiness is limited to only those foods and activities that have been approved by the health police.

While this may be fine for some, Americans defend their liberty precisely because we do not want governments and elitists imposing their personal priorities upon us. In the same film, the leader of the anti-government resistance explained the importance of liberty, “I’m into freedom of speech and freedom of choice… I want high cholesterol. I would eat bacon and butter and buckets of cheese… Why? Because I might suddenly feel the need to. OK? Pal, I’ve seen the future. Know what it is? It’s a 47-year-old virgin sitting around in his pajamas, sipping a banana-broccoli shake.”

Of course, bad diets are not a prerequisite for good Americans; there is no link between cholesterol and patriotism. In fact, the country could stand to lose a few billion pounds of fat. But with liberty comes responsibility. We have the freedom to make unhealthy choices. We can eat all of the onion rings we want. We can engage in dangerous sports like boxing and rugby. We can bungee jump and skydive. We can have premarital sex, and we can walk alone through bad neighborhoods wearing lavish diamond jewelry.

These may not be the wisest choices, but they are legal. And they should remain legal. The Declaration of Independence rightly defended our unalienable right to pursue happiness. For many, happiness is a side of butter with their lobster, or a side of fries with their Big Mac, even if it means some extra fat calories.

Every man eats. Not every man truly enjoys his food. At least he’s free to eat what he wants… For now. We do not need to be protected from good tasting food, and we certainly do not need protection from the freedom to eat what we want. However, we must always guard against mercenary trial lawyers that destroy our liberties for a quick million.