More on the Los Angeles fast-food moratorium.
Lots of backtalk to Thursday's piece about the fast-food moratorium in Los Angeles. The conversation is turning into a progressive-libertarian slugfest. My bad: I laid on the outrage a bit thick. I really am shocked that the L.A. City Council unanimously voted to treat fast food just like alcohol or tobacco. But I don't want the crossing of that line to be obscured by a larger ideological quarrel. So let's back up and focus on exactly what's new here.
Two writers I respect, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, argue that the moratorium isn't really new. Here's Klein:
[T]he city council is doing something incredibly ordinary: Deciding what sort of establishment it will allow to open within its jurisdiction. This is called zoning, and not to scare anyone, but it happens all the time. … City governments have long used the preferences of residents or the perceived needs of the community to discriminate when licensing businesses for construction. … [T]he idea that this is some sort of crazy new nanny state innovation just suggests that folks really aren't paying attention to how their local governments work.
And here's Yglesias:
[T]his is hardly unique. Is Saletan for abolishing liquor license regulations? Maybe he is. I don't think that's a crazy position but that would be a radical change in the way we do business. Banning fast food outlets, by contrast, is very much in line with the status quo. And though it might shock Saletan to hear about it, there are lots of upscale towns and neighborhoods all across the country that do the same thing.
Well, almost. When an old practice ventures into new territory, you can always choose to look at it as the same old thing. But in this case, the novelty of the application is what's interesting. Most cities have long zoned liquor stores, and some have zoned chain restaurants for reasons other than health, such as tackiness. What's new in L.A. is the zoning of fast food as a health threat akin to liquor. Health zoning has crossed the line from booze and cigarettes to food. This goes way beyond tackiness. In principle, it justifies banning the targeted restaurants not just here or there but everywhere.
To clarify the novelty, here's the New York Times, two years ago, on a similar plan that was under development in New York:
Leaders in Concord [Mass.] and other communities have acted against fast food because they say the establishments create traffic and pollution problems, contribute to truancy, tarnish the aesthetics of the area or drive mom-and-pop restaurants out of business. [New York City Councilman Joel] Rivera is one of the first elected officials to propose restricting fast-food outlets for purely nutritional reasons.
Health is the explicit rationale for the L.A. ordinance. Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the executive director of Community Coalition, a major force behind the ordinance, reaffirmed this point in a letter to Slate on Friday:
What kind of choice is it if the predominant options we have in our neighborhood are greasy, unhealthy fast food restaurants? What kind of choice do we have when our neighborhoods are filled with liquor stores rather than full service grocery stores? Our choices are not between healthy and unhealthy, but often between bad and worse.
Photograph of South Los Angeles © 2008 Google Street View.