Fattening the State

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Southwest Airlines recently announced that, as of this week, "persons of size" who fly with them will have to purchase an additional seat if they cannot fit into one.

The policy is not without precedent: United Airlines already charges heavier passengers double if they cannot fit in one seat. But in the wake of Southwest’s announcement, the discrimination police were out in their usual hysterical force. One obesity activist I saw on television argued that fat people shouldn’t be charged more for exceeding their allotted space since bulimic people do not receive a discount for using up less.

I was about to refute this argument, but it’s probably safe to assume that my readers are not comatose.

These cries of "discrimination" recall the old claim that a hairdresser who charges more for women’s haircuts than men’s is engaged in discrimination. Men’s and women’s haircuts are not the same product. The women’s cut is generally much more demanding and time-consuming, and requires considerable skill, while men are generally content with a simple, straightforward haircut. (Of course, even if this did constitute discrimination, it should still be perfectly licit; anyone whose blood boiled from moral outrage over such an egregious travesty against human rights could simply patronize another establishment.)

Likewise, the passenger using up more than one seat is not using the same product as the person who uses only one. In no conceivable sense could it be described as "discrimination" to charge a higher fee to someone who uses more of a service.

Activists for the overweight complain that the real problem is the small size of airplane seats. "The fact is that Americans are getting larger," Berg noted. "This is what the population looks like, and an airline has an obligation to make its seat fit the population."

Of course, an airline has no such "obligation" in a free society. Since it wants to keep its customer base, it naturally wants to provide accommodations suitable for the population, and it will lose market share if its competitors do a better job of catering to people’s comfort. Berg’s inanity amounts to saying, "The fact is that Americans are moving away from classical music and toward rock. This is what the population listens to, and a record company has an obligation to make its music suit the population."

Now, businessmen are not infallible. Southwest’s policy may backfire. It all depends on the difference between the revenue lost when angry overweight customers refuse to pay for an extra seat and fly on a competing airline that features no such requirement, and the revenue to be gained by passengers eager to fly on an airline that ensures that its passengers will enjoy a comfortable flight.

"We don’t want the customer to be embarrassed or offended in any way," said Southwest spokeswoman Christine Turneabe-Connelly. But the comfort of all passengers is important. "If we have a full flight and there’s somebody sitting next to [a larger passenger], the other customer becomes upset." In fact, Southwest found that most of the letters of complaint it was receiving came from people "feeling crowded by a large passenger."

Under the new policy, a Southwest employee would speak discreetly to especially heavy customers planning to board a crowded flight, and ask them either to purchase a second seat or to wait for a less crowded flight. The Times of London quoted one NAAFA spokesman as saying that she would not pay one cent more than any other passenger, and predicted that Southwest’s policy would lead to lawsuits (as people seek to vindicate their inalienable human right to pay for one seat and use one and a half).

"Remember that you have a right to accessible transportation," the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance tells visitors to its website. It would be interesting to hear the philosophical basis for such a "right," strangely overlooked by John Locke and the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Of course, the only genuine rights are ones that can be enjoyed by all people at the same time and in the same way, since any right that belongs to man qua man (such as the right to private property) must by definition be available for his exercise at all times, else it is not truly part of his nature. A "right to accessible transportation," of course, means that one person gets accessible transportation while another is forced to provide it. To paraphrase Frank van Dun: Imagine two people on a desert island — how would they enforce their "right to accessible transportation" on each other, apart from each of them fruitlessly barking commands at the other person?

The response to Southwest’s obviously reasonable policy reflects the growth of an antidiscrimination movement among the overweight. Laws are presently on the books preventing discrimination on the basis of weight or height in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Michigan.

When San Francisco’s Jennifer Portnick applied in the summer of 2001 for a position as an aerobics instructor with Jazzercise, a company with 5,300 franchises in 38 countries, she was turned down. "Applicants must have a higher muscle to fat ratio and look leaner than the public," the 240-pound Portnick was told.

"I thought, I’m being judged by my measurements and not by what I can do," Portnick later told reporters. Well, that’s a crying shame, but it’s their company, not yours. In the same way that a dentist might not want a receptionist with David Letterman-like teeth, an exercise center might want to communicate to its customers that following its regimen might actually make them thin. "A Jazzercise applicant must look leaner than the public," Portnick’s rejection letter read. Nazi Germany!

Naturally, Portnick had no choice but to pursue the matter with San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission and its ordinances regarding weight discrimination. "She can inspire people to be fit that don’t have a cookie-cutter body," lawyer Sondra Solovy said, thereby suggesting that if only Jazzercise possessed better businessmen, the company would realize the unique profit opportunity it had just missed.

But if Jazzercise was really shooting itself in the foot by not hiring Portnick, let the market prove her right. In fact, the publicity surrounding the case led to an upsurge of business at Portnick’s own aerobics center, where she now works. The "discrimination" mentality, on the other hand, has become all-consuming in the United States, supplanting common sense and rational thought. The first instinct is now always to run to the state and bully the hapless employer whose crime was not to hire you.

Naturally, Jazzercise eventually backed down under the pressure and settled with Portnick, dropping its "fit appearance" requirement for its aerobics instructors. Portnick announced her victory during International No Diet Day festivities in San Francisco.

There’s no logical stopping point to any of this. Why not demand, for instance, that all clothing stores respect overweight people’s human right to purchase clothes of their size? Why should they need to degrade themselves by having to shop at a Big & Tall? Isn’t that almost like apartheid?

Once again, it is private property that provides the only conflict-free resolution to problems of this kind. By intruding in the affairs of civil society and curtailing the rights of property owners in the name of stopping so-called anti-fat discrimination, it will be the state, when all is said and done, that ultimately grows the fattest.

Reprinted from Mises.org.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (visit his website; follow him on Facebook; send him mail), holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and his master’s, M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Columbia University. His nine books include the critically acclaimed study The Church Confronts Modernity (Columbia University Press, 2004) and two New York Times bestsellers: Meltdown and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. His new book, Nullification, will be released on June 29.

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