Hands Off My French Fries! A Philosophical Objection to “Nudging” in the Food Industry

Every once in a while, I can’t resist indulging in a sleeve of hot, crispy McDonald’s French fries.  Not even Michelle Obama can resist the attractive allure of the crispy spuds. However, that doesn’t stop her from trying to curb the desires of her fellow Americans.  I can only assume that the First Lady’s stint in office will long be characterized by her perpetual battle against America’s increasing waistline.  Her attempt to halt the increasing health concerns of overweight Americans is certainly a noble cause, but her methods (unsurprisingly) are not always acceptable within the confines of a classical liberal society.

Historically, any intervention into individual decision making has been deemed paternalistic.  Paternalism is any interference into a person’s exercise of their free will in a manner deemed to be in their best interest. Perhaps the most common paternalistic regulation is the requirement of all automobile passengers (in some states) to wear seatbelts. In the food industry, people are generally very wary of restrictions on their dining options whether or not this restriction is proposed in the name of “better health.”  Thus, the Obama administration has enacted what is known as “Libertarian Paternalism” in an attempt to assuage these concerns.  Libertarian Paternalism is a theory created by Richard Thaler and Obama Czar Cass Sunstein which claims that it is possible to use paternalistic means in a way that is still compatible with a free society.  It uses the concept of “nudges” to shape the choices of decision makers. For example, Thaler and Sunstein suggested moving desserts around in a cafeteria so that the fresh fruit would be more accessible than the less healthy choices. In a decision praised by Michelle Obama herself, McDonalds is taking on the concept of “default” choices in order to provide children with healthier options. Soon, the automatic side in every Happy Meal will be apples, not French Fries.

This system of “nudges” may seem to be an innocent solution to a massive issue, but its affects are perhaps far more insidious than they appear to be at first glance. The key issue with this theory is that it messes with our own internal choice structures by hinging upon the imperfections inherent in human decision making. Humans, by nature, tend to be impulsive and only superficially deliberative when it comes to making purchases.  Libertarian paternalism latches onto this imperfection and uses it to meet the ends of the person creating the choice set.  Nudging insidiously shapes the decision making behavior by making what some bureaucrat deems the “better” choice more readily available. In the case of the food industry, their desired “end” is universally better health.  However, under this libertarian paternalistic system, that end is actually more difficult to achieve.

Healthier lifestyles require internal behavior modification and elective change.  This can only come about through education and individual trial and error.  For example, someone who has a heart attack because of a lifestyle of unhealthy eating might begin to consider changing their behavior to improve their own heath.  The negative health consequence of their action was the “trigger” for the change.  However, under a system of “nudges,” the trigger is mere convenience.  People will tend to choose the automatic option, whether it be apples or French fries, not because of the health value, but because of ease or their laziness.  A default side or reorganized cafeteria will not make me healthier, but an internal choice for behavior modification will.

Obama Czar Cass Sunstein

When you mess with people’s internal choices, things get complicated. Theorists like Sunstein and Thaler like to claim that their “nudges” are compatible with free choice, but they are mistaken. A key requirement for free choice is that the choice is, well, free.  How can a choice be truly free when the chooser is being poked and prodded and when the choice itself is being “shaped” by an outside force?  Trying to change personal preference is the definition of coercion, however subtle it may be.  However, for now, I plan on holding tight to my own personal choice sets for they are the basis of my individual freedom. I’ll choose the food options that I want, regardless of federal or social objections. If my food choice is deemed “incorrect” by the First Lady or the members of her coalition, so be it. Now excuse me while I go try to show McDonald’s employees that that I am not too old to buy a Happy Meal. And yes, Michelle Obama, I would like fries with that.

Amy Lutz // Saint Louis University // @AmyLutz4



  1. Amy, good article. I hope you will write more often…

    Also, when you add ‘links’ you make it impossible to forward you articles with any comments attached. Links are not important unless you are writing something for class.


  2. Translation: “The First Lady is black. I don’t like that.”

  3. Sean Breslin says:

    When all else fails, claim racism (as “mittens” has so eloquently done).

  4. Mitten you are a class 1 idiot.It is not racism to point out failure because failure does not have a race.

  5. Mike Heuss says:

    If I understand the article correctly – McDonald’s former default choice was fries. In an effort to offer healthier food – they will make apples the default choice. Consumers will still be free to select fries. Freedom hasn’t been abrogated.

    I am not sure why this is bad. The government hasn’t legislated a private company to make this choice – they are doing it themselves.

    McDonalds has made a huge effort to bring in fresh food to counter the damage done by the “supersize me” movie and the perception that McDonald’s food is unhealthy – and this sounds like another effort to appeal to a more affluent customer base that is more health conscious. They’ve upgraded their coffee to appeal to customers who are willing to spend a little more on their brew. They’ve switched oils to use heart healthier oils. They are competing – and a few parents who might have skipped McDonalds might not because they can feel better feeding their kid fresh fruit instead of french fries. That is the essence of freedom – the essence of liberty – and customers who are truly upset about the decision have the freedom to reject the companies decision. If enough people do reject it, you can bet McDonalds will be back to gluing a serving of fries back on every box.

    That nudging or guiding choices might be a bad thing really runs counter to the whole basic premise of our capitalistic system. Grocery Stores charge suppliers fees for the end caps – because people will pick up those items more readily than walk down the aisle. Newspapers are almost always by the door in a convenience store – in the hopes you’ll buy one when you check out. Money is spent on TV to get you to pick Milk instead of soda, because dairy farmers want to make a living, too. Your boss might give you a bonus if you hit your sales quota. You’ll earn more money if you get a college degree. You’ll succeed better in business if you join the largest church in the community, and/or if you donate time to your chamber of commerce. Believe in Jesus Christ or suffer eternal damnation. These are all choices you have – societal nudges, if you will. They’ve been around forever – and are a part of life.

    As conservatives – we should focus on reducing government interference into private citizen’s lives – not sweating what side dish a private corporation is voluntarily offering on its menu.

  6. So I guess you were against the Bushs’ attempts encourage literacy?

    I’m not sure why conservatives are acting like First Lady Obama is the first to have a pet project. Pretty much all First Ladies have had one. Laura’s was education, Clinton’s healthcare, Barbara’s literacy, the famous “Just Say No” was Nancy’s, Rosalynn – mental health, Betty – women rights, Pat – volunteering, Lady Bird – the environment.

    Childhood obesity is a growing concern -its tripled since the ’80s and this may be the first generation that doesn’t outlive their parents.

    Again, another article that ignores the larger ascepts of the program and other edvince to make its point. And you all want to be journalists?

  7. 2alangroves says:

    Thank you for defending my right to splurge on Mickey D’S!!! Seriously.

  8. To Ron: On the contrary, I think links are very necessary to articles posted here. They allow writers to add background information not easily worked into their pieces. They also offer support for their opinions, or differences of opinion. AAMOF, when I see an article with no links, I know it is going to be either all opinion, or very dry. Links add spice. I suggest to solve your problem you just forward a link to the article page (which has the comments) with a short summary or a few leading words added. JMHO.
    BTW, I liked Mike’s and Michelle’s comments.

  9. To Michelle:
    Bush encouraging literacy is like Obama encouraging you to eat.
    Obama telling you to eat apples is like Bush telling you to read Mein Kampf.

    I find it ironic that we need to expand school breakfast, lunch and dinner programs because kids are starving, yet we are told they are all becoming obese.

    By the way, BMI indexing is an inaccurate measurement in determining obesity. By this measure every player in the NBA and NFL is obese.

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