One of the things we can’t trust you with any more is grocery shopping.  Don’t take it personally; chances are that you’re just ignorant.  You buy and eat things that are bad for you, and you avoid food that can make you healthier — which is important to all of us, since we all share in your medical costs.

But there’s no need to worry.  First Lady Michelle Obama is on the case:

We…need to find a way to impact the nature of food in grocery stores, in terms of sugar, fat, and salt.

Sounds ominous, though, doesn’t it?  Exactly how does Big Sister intend to go about “impacting” what grocery stores sell?  It seems unlikely that our government in its current form can actually legislate what a grocery store sells, although Mike Bloomberg has taken a wildly unpopular stab at regulating the size of the containers it gets sold in.

We have no quarrel with the First Lady’s good intentions.  As usual, it’s the means, not the ends, that trouble us.  It seems that every time we confront a really complex problem, two approaches are always proposed.  The first never works and the second doesn’t reallly woork either, but it’s even worse.  These are:

1.  Produce megatons of “educational” programs and materials to explain to people why they really ought to change.

2.  Pass new laws that just proscribe the offensive behavior.

The first option is already in progress.  According to

Mrs. Obama’s “Lets Move!” campaign has published an online guide called “Supermarket Shopping 101” that provides tips for shoppers on the importance of making a list and how to navigate a grocery store.

“Steer clear of the cookie, snack and soda aisle until after you’ve collected everything on your list–at that point, your cart should be full, which might make you feel less tempted to buy things you don’t need,” the guide states.

Cool.  Wish I’d thought of that.  Fill up the cart with lots of healthy stuff so you don’t have room for that bad stuff.  And just steer clear of those cookies, snacks and sodas.

Still, if there are people that haven’t yet grasped the connection between junk food and an ass the size of a Buick, chances are they don’t really read “online guides” any more than they do crossword puzzles.

Okay.  Education is actually good, and really does work, and we have the living proof of it in the way a large part of this country has radically altered its eating habits.  Chances are, if you’re older than forty, you remember family dinners that centered on meat, starch, fat and all those things that you so carefully ration today.  What changed?  Your understanding of nutrition, along with the reasonable probability that if you changed the way you ate, you would feel better and live longer.

But then, why this obesity epidemic, if so many of us know better?

Because so many of us don’t, and those tend to be concentrated in — sigh — the lower socioeconomic strata.  Worse still, many who do know better still can’t help using food either as a personal reward system or as a child management tool.  “Hush, baby, here’s a doughnut” and “Turn on the box and pass me the pork rinds” are now as much a part of American life as Mom and — oops –apple pie.

Well, what about that second terrible approach?

That’s the one where we give up on voluntary compliance with the wishes of the state and pass laws.  How about “no putting the candy right next to the register?”  Or, as someone has already proposed, only “food” stores sell food — no more snack racks in drug stores or newsstands — or airports?  This is a popular meme among the nutrition police — that we are constantly surrounded by food everywhere we go, and we need to be protected from our own impulses.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.  But don’t underestimate the ardor of the nutrition viligantes.  Part of their argument increasingly has been that society has a right to impose limits and regulations on people’s eating practices because ensuing health care costs are borne by society at large in one way or another.  This is a specious argument, to be sure, but an alluring one.

Why specious?  Because you can say the same thing about bicycles, or rock climbing, or soccer leagues.  All have associated health risks, but we assume the benefits outweigh the costs.  The benefits of freedom of choice, and the avoidance of further expansion of the nanny state, seem to us to be equally, if not more, valuable.