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L.A.'s big fat failure

Nutritional information is printed on the wrapper of a McDonald's Egg McMuffin in San Rafael, California
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Nutritional information is printed on the wrapper of a McDonald's Egg McMuffin in San Rafael, California

When government and nanny state types try to trample on liberty, they always use the excuse that their actions are necessary for "our own safety."

And that was the excuse behind the highly intrusive, condescending, and possibly unconstitutional zoning rule passed by the Los Angeles City Council in 2008 limiting the opening or expansion of fast food restaurants in mostly minority neighborhoods. The argument was that obesity and other maladies often connected to a diet high in fat and salt are more common among minorities because there are so many unhealthy restaurants where they live.

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The mere idea of this line of reasoning was suspect at best. It's primarily based on the faulty notion that free people make bad choices too often because they don't have the smarts, stamina or the means to do the "right" thing. It's couched in terms of benign concern, but at its core it's usually indicative of a hatred of liberty. And when politicians are the ones delivering the message, you can bet the chances that corruption has something to do with it are also very high.

And now here's the punchline: it didn't work! Not only have obesity rates failed to fall in the neighborhoods the zoning rules targeted, but they've gone up. A RAND Corporation study out just today says the changes haven't had any positive health effect at all. Defenders of the policy are now engaging in damage control, claiming that they never expected this one part of the their campaign for healthier diets to work on its own. Yeah, right.

But even if the study had shown some reduction of obesity, it doesn't mean this kind of attack on the free market and individual liberty is the right thing to do. And in this case, the focus on the minority-heavy areas of the city and not the richer and whiter areas spoke volumes. It's hard not to believe the message of this policy was that L.A.'s politicians simply don't believe minorities have the intelligence or the strength to go a little out of their way to get healthier food. The only reason I can see that minority groups didn't loudly protest this act of extreme paternalism was the fact that it was put forward by Democrats on the City Council. Just imagine if a conservative Republican were fronting this kind of garbage!

It isn't just this particular law that failed, but what's continuing to fail is the entire idea that government has the right or even the ability to change human behavior without also taking away our freedom. If people want to eat unhealthy food, they're going to eat unhealthy food. Instead of trying to punish fast food chain owners, (who probably made the mistake of not donating enough money to the right L.A. City Council members' campaign funds), local governments should remove the many barriers to entry they impose on all kinds of businesses that can provide healthier food.

One of those businesses is Wal-Mart. None other than First Lady Michelle Obama has spoken out in praise of the chain's successful, (emphasis on the word "successful"), efforts to bring lower cost healthier food options to consumers across the country. And yet, guess which chain has the most trouble breaking new ground in cities like Los Angeles and is totally banned in New York City? You got it: Wal-Mart. It's enough to make one think this "for your own good" campaign isn't about health at all and more about anti-corporatism and rewarding other merchants who support the correct political powers.

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And that's exactly what this is all about. The politicians backing the anti-fast food zoning rules don't really care about the failed results because their prime motivation wasn't about improving health in the first place. Their actions have now left us all with more than just a bad taste in our mouths.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.