Paul Jacob

Blame Upton Sinclair.

You may want to blame Michael Bloomberg or Barack Obama for the current binge of food nannyism, but Sinclair really got the ball rolling.

His novel, The Jungle, was one of the most influential books in American history. It scared hordes of Americans into relying on the federal government to protect them from bad food, meat in particular.

But the book was a failure, on several counts.

First, it wasn’t a very good novel — but it didn’t need to be. Neither did Dracula nor Naked Came the Stranger. What it got was attention.

Second, it was a work of fiction, and by that I don’t mean the obvious. I mean, Sinclair told some whoppers. He made stuff up. He lied about the conditions of meat packing in Chicago for “effect.”

Third, Sinclair was an earnest and self-professed socialist who aimed to turn Americans against the capitalist system as a whole. Most folks, however, had no interest in a complete overhaul of society. They just wanted a few tweaks. And they got them. Sinclair himself admitted that the book failed to do what he wanted: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Sinclair may have stretched the truth in his few pages devoted to icky food processing, but he did briefly focus on something that later accounts usually forget: the problem of corrupt government inspectors. Yes, contrary to what I was told in high school, there were meat inspectors before The Jungle. The just-so story from the history books, that Sinclair’s novel forced a necessary regulatory regime upon a cruelly laissez faire America — by popular demand, no less — was something less than accurate. Instead, Congress and the Department of Agriculture found almost no basis in fact for Sinclair’s allegations, but passed new regulations anyway . . . to appease pressure from the meat packing lobby!

Cut to the present day. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing to ban Big Gulps and the like, for New Yorkers’ health sake. President Barack Obama and his wife talk endlessly about “getting healthy,” and do more than hint about how the federal government can step into our lives to make us better. “Make no mistake,” the president likes to say, about the need for more government.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.