As a fan of free markets, I recognize that sometimes intelligent government regulations (not always an oxymoron!) can improve markets by requiring companies to provide consumers with information that will help them make better choices. Informed consumers, after all, are a central ingredient of a successful free market. That’s why even most libertarians support regulations that ban fraudulent advertising.
That’s also why, at first glance, the federal government seemed to be promoting better markets when it passed rules requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts next to their menu items. Research has shown that many consumers are horribly uninformed about the number of calories in most menu options, often significantly underestimating the amount in their favorite meals. Calorie count information should help these consumers make more informed, and therefore better, decisions.
But recent push-back from groups like pizza companies raises important questions about the proper size and scope of such regulations. More importantly, this controversy should remind all of us that, when debating government regulations, we should be humble, because it is often difficult to set a proper balance between helping consumers while at the same time allowing businesses to prosper.
To understand the push-back, it helps to take a guess – your best shot – at estimating the number of calories in a large Little Caesars pizza.
Stumped? You should be. There is no right answer to this question, because there is no such thing as a generic large Little Caesars pizza. Instead, there are hundreds of possible large pizzas one could buy from this company – cheese pizzas, pepperoni and sausage pizzas, mushroom green pepper and extra sauce pizzas . . . you get the idea. The number of calories in a large Little Caesars pizza depends on how many toppings consumers choose to put on top of their pies. This variability makes it hard for Little Caesars to post calorie counts on its menu.