June 19, 2010

Anarchy, Plate, and Utopia

Utopian authors, each very confident of the virtues of his own vision and of its singular correctness, have differed among themselves… in the institutions and kinds of life they present for emulation. Though the picture of an ideal society that each presents is much too simple… we should take the fact of the differences seriously. No utopian author has everyone in his society leading exactly the same life, allocating exactly the same amount of time to exactly the same activities. Why not? Don't the reasons also count against just one kind of community?

The conclusion to draw is that there will not be one kind of community existing and one kind of life led in utopia. Utopia will consist of many utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead different kinds of lives under different institutions. Some kinds of communities will be more attractive to most than others; communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one… Different communities, each with a slightly different mix, will provide a range from which each individual can choose that community which best approximates
his balance among competing values.

- Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 311-12

Diet authors are a lot like the utopian authors described above. Substitute the word "diet" for the words "society," "institutions," "community," "communities," "utopian," and "utopias" above, and you have a pretty accurate picture of the dietary advice scene: a lot of different people peddling a lot of conflicting opinions on what to and not to eat, all promising nutritional nirvana through deliverance into the one true Dietary Utopia. It worked for them, so it must work for you. There are authors promoting low-fat/high-carb diets, high-fat/low-carb diets, grain-based diets, grain-free diets, all-fruit diets, all-meat diets, all-raw diets, and all-cooked diets, to name only a few. Obviously, they can't all be right… Right?

Well, a grain-based diet is not going to work so well for someone with celiac disease. But it did seem to work well for the Swiss villagers studied by Weston Price, who mainly subsisted on sourdough bread coupled with dairy products. These healthy Swiss ate the opposite of a "paleo" diet, which claims that we should avoid grains and dairy because humans are not adapted to eating them. Many who eat a paleo diet also limit their carbohydrate intake and have success losing weight. But in the long term, some low-carb dieters gain weight. So do many people on a high-carb diet. Then you have the people of Kitava, who get a whopping 69% of their calories from carbohydrates, and yet remain very lean into old age. Different authors have singled out these different conflicting diets and claimed that one is the ideal diet for all human beings. Confused yet?

Libertarians recognize that all people are different, with different values, backgrounds, tastes, goals, etc. As such, they also recognize that there is no single one-size-fits-all society that can morally and adequately meet everyone's needs and desires. Where the tendency toward seeking to impose a one-size-fits-all society is weak, and all individuals--though their lifestyles and values may diverge in every other possible way--share a single over-arching commitment to non-aggression (i.e. respect for natural rights), a peaceful, pluralistic order emerges, which libertarians call a free market. (Pro tip: modern American capitalism is not a free market.*) Individual differences are harmonized in a free market, where all are free to associate, think, live, and transact as they desire, but none may forcibly impose their preferences on another. By contrast, these same individual differences are divisive under state rule, where people are incentivized to lobby the state through voting, pay-offs, and other "activism" in order to forcibly privilege one race, class, industry, or interest at the expense of another, instead of coexisting peacefully. Libertarianism invites and accommodates pluralism; statism denies and destroys it.

Applying the pluralistic spirit of libertarianism to the question of what to eat, then, what conclusions can we arrive at other than the obvious one that everyone ought to be left free to choose for themselves? For just as there is no one society that is right for everyone, there is no one diet that is right for everyone, either. Legislate the Inuit into following a vegan diet, and watch them all starve to death for lack of food. Force an infant to choke down steak in place of breast milk and wait for trouble. Differences in environment, age, health status, past diet and lifestyle, and even parents' diet and lifestyle (from preconception through weaning) all produce differences among peoples' present nutritional needs and their feasible sources for meeting these needs. Never mind if bananas could meet all the nutritional needs of the Inuit (I doubt it), they're not a feasible nutritive source for them anyway because they won't grow in their environment; never mind if steak contains all the nutrients newborns need (I doubt it), it's not a feasible nutritive source for them because they haven't developed the ability to properly digest it. All that said, must we then resign ourselves to total dietary relativism? No. While no single diet is right for all people in all circumstances, for each individual, clearly one diet can be better than another. A diet of meat and fish is superior to a fruitarian diet for the Inuit. A diet of breast milk is superior to a diet of meat and fish for an infant. A diet which enables one to prevent degenerative disease is superior to one which causes one to develop degenerative disease. And so on.

Okay, but to return to the question posed at the beginning of the previous paragraph, what else can we conclude from the application of libertarianism to the question of diet? We understand that people should be free to eat any and all food they want, but should libertarians, qua libertarians, necessarily want to eat any and all food? And to throw in another question, if a basic shared social philosophy of natural rights is what unites and underpins peaceful societies of individuals with otherwise divergent personal philosophies and lifestyles, is there likewise a basic shared food philosophy which may underpin and connect all the otherwise divergent opinions of the myriad diet authors? In answer to the first two questions, libertarians, as much as possible, should avoid eating food that is produced or sold by anti-libertarian means. This idea will be a major focus of this blog, and one I will elaborate on in the next post. In answer to the third question, I do believe there is a basic food philosophy shared by most diet authors: whether carnivorous or vegan, raw or cooked, low-carb or high-carb, they mostly all seem to agree that people should base their diets around whole, natural foods. Certainly, there are many who compromise and publish recipes for "healthy" cookies baked with "fat-free oil" (whatever the hell that is) and "guiltless" soy protein isolate smoothies with refined sugar added "to taste," but rare is the diet author who actually prioritizes such frankenfoods over real foods, much less recommends eating Rice Krispie Treats and corn syrup at every meal.** Likewise, while health researcher Weston Price (in ten years of studying isolated and modernized peoples all across the globe) never encountered any two healthy populations eating the exact same diet (some of which were high-fat while others were high-carb, some heavily dependent on animals and others not as much--though none were completely vegetarian), he did find underlying common ground in that wherever people were happy, hardy, and free of degenerative disease, they were eating whole, natural foods, and wherever people were stricken with degenerative disease and deformity, they were eating industrially processed foods.

In closing, if you wish to discover your own personal Dietary Utopia, start by replacing "food" from wrappers, cans, boxes, and bottles (and, most urgently, spray bottles!) with real food from from the soil, the sea, and the sky. You may be in for a long and confusing process, but adhere to natural foods as you adhere to natural rights and you'll find your way in time. Even feeding nothing but banana smoothies to your adopted Inuit newborn is likely to be better for it than just about anything wrapped in a package with a trademarked logo.

In the posts ahead, we'll explore the many ways in which natural foods and natural rights are not only compatible, and good for your health, but interdependent and mutually reinforcing, as well.

* See here, here, here, here, and here.

** Though it wouldn't be a stretch for such a diet (being low in fat after all!) to receive a "heart-healthy" stamp of approval from the federal government. (Ditto "independent" medical associations.) If you don't like their financial policy, or their social policy, or their foreign policy, or--especially--their health care policy, you should really be wary of their dietary policy.


Don Wiss said...

The link above to "paleo" is a link to a book that is just one variation on the paleo diet. It has a few strange non-paleo quirks. Probably to make the diet more politically correct. I've written a more general definition and I list all the variations on it that are out there: Paleo Diet Introduction.

Mike Jones said...

Thanks, Don. Since Cordain's book seems to have played a big part in initially reintroducing and popularizing the concept of the paleo diet, I linked to his site. But I would agree: his politically correct reservations over saturated fat, salt, and "high-glycemic" natural carbohydrates appear to me as not only unfounded but incongruous with the likely characteristics of actual paleolithic diets.