Obesity has become a threat to the nation, we are told. "Obesity is depleting our nation’s pocketbook and devastating the health and wellness of millions of Americans," says Dr. Clyde Yancy of the American Heart Association. "Left unaddressed, the obesity epidemic will undermine our country’s health, reduce our productivity and threaten our economic security."
Yancy’s warnings appear at the conservative Washington Times. The notion that the rotund hordes present a national problem crying for a national solution is becoming mainstream. If you Google around, you’ll see calls for Congressional action to take on American flab on a nearly daily basis, and the concern that the portly populace will bankrupt America’s health care system has never been so widespread.
The politicization of overeating provides a stark example of how welfare statism fosters social conflict. The healthy and fit resent paying tax subsidies for the health care of those who gorge themselves. Some suggest that the way to reduce costs is for the state to intervene in the dietary habits of the gluttonous.
Perhaps the subsidization of medical bills is not the only factor behind the drive toward a war on obesity, but it is a crucial one. Indeed, the desire to control the behavior of others is a natural byproduct of the welfare state and socialized society.
How many times have we heard that the public cost of drug abuse or smoking or immigrants on public "services" justifies ever more state intervention to curb the negative impact on society? When the state is expected to care for people, it will necessarily become invasive in the limits it places on purportedly destructive and risky behavior, and many will favor the new intrusions because they are being forced to foot the bill. Economic scarcity and welfare bolster the cause for controlling people in their most personal decisions, what they eat, what drugs they use, even what their sexual habits are. This should alarm liberals who truly don’t want the government making such decisions for people, and lead them to question the premises of welfare statism.
The logic of paternalistic government, in health care, the drug war, and other areas, has inexorably brought us to the arguments about obesity we hear today. Some advocates believe restaurants should be forbidden from offering large, American-sized portions. One proposal out there is to restrict overweight people in publicly indulging themselves, premised on the fact that smokers have already been marginalized in the public sphere for similar reasons. Moving further toward socialization in health care will bring even more draconian proposals, including the rationing of medical services to those who live an unhealthy lifestyle or outright prohibitions on what people are allowed to eat.
The very nature of government social programs is to move away from private responsibility and toward centralized allocation of resources, redistributing them from some to others. By its very definition, socialism displaces individual, market choices with ones that would not reflect the voluntary economic decisions of free individuals. Socialized medicine means that either the healthy are subsidizing the unhealthy, or the reverse. It is also possible that both groups will suffer (this is indeed the most likely possibility), but some will always be perceived to be suffering or benefiting more compared to others. Either way, some people have understandable grievances about their confiscated money being given to other people.
Collectivism is the major cause of social conflict, and the welfare state in any form necessarily causes divisions where there shouldn’t be any. People of different races, nationalities, religions, classes, trades and lifestyles have no reason not to live among each other in peace, and such social peace is what emerges in a market economy. The division of labor, the individual basis for private property rights, the allowance of contract and voluntary communities with the freedom to associate and to exclude, the mutual benefits intrinsic in all consensual economic exchange — these bring about harmony among people despite, even because of, their differences. But the state as an engine of coercion cannot help but pit one group against another.
The welfare state divides people based on their role in the economy, their income, their age and a thousand other distinctions. Taxpayers without children must pay for those with many children through health care programs and public schools. The young are forced to finance the old through Social Security and Medicare. Now they want to force the young and healthy into a mandated “insurance” system so as to finance the medical care of the ill and infirm, but the introduction of politics and state violence into the arrangement means that those who resent this relationship will call for restrictions on those they are compelled to subsidize, and such pressure along with economic law will require any socialist system, lest it collapse, to inflict mandates and rationed care on some segments of the subsidized population.
Obesity and overeating can be real problems, just as drug addiction or unhealthy occupations or not getting enough sleep or any other imbalance can be. And surely, Americans’ food choices are probably not optimal. We probably eat too much.
One thing we do know about the mostly market-based food industry in America is that it gets food to everyone. It has managed, even under government regulation, to provide nourishment universally and there is no reason to think stripping away the regulations would eliminate this miracle that the socialists of yesteryear doubted was possible under capitalism. The biggest food-related problem with the American poor is obesity. The far more regulated and corporatist health care industry, in contrast, is rightly critiqued for its ballooning costs and failure to reach everyone.
On the other hand, poor eating habits are largely a reflection of government meddling, in the subsidization of corn and corn syrup, the political favor given to industrial food giants and factory farming, the many other distortions of a free and healthy market in food. See Michael Pollan on one example of how government has fostered unhealthy diets in America. He blames the farm bill for obesity, which he argues is not “the inevitable result of the free market.” His solution, however, is not a free-market one.
To truly solve this, or make it the most manageable and tolerable problem it can be, the answer is more freedom and personal responsibility. Make people pay the full price of what they eat, both at the grocery store and later in life in the form of health care. This sounds callous to the left, even as they advocate rationing and mandates on the obese.
Somehow we have come to the point where calling for personal responsibility and freedom is considered heartless, even as government enforcement of a healthy lifestyle is deemed compassionate. A truly compassionate society would allow people the freedom to eat as they want and take responsibility for those choices, neither obstructed by rising health care costs resulting from government intervention, nor subsidized in their poorly planned behavior. Of course, we would also hope that families, communities and civil society would assist those truly in need and encourage and educate people to live healthily, but the question of eating habits, and all such personal decisions, should never be settled by government rationing boards or state violence.
With eating habits, we are of course dealing with a particularly intimate affair in people’s personal lives. But this is also the case with laws on sexual relations, cigarette smoking, vaccinations, child birth and other questions related to health. Many of us have been warning that a war on obesity would come, and it seems to be scheduled to arrive soon, especially if Obamacare gets passed.
When it comes, no matter the socialist excuses for trampling on the rights of those with insatiable appetites, let’s remember what Mises said: "If one abolishes man’s freedom to determine his own consumption, one takes all freedoms away. The nave advocates of government interference with consumption delude themselves when they neglect what they disdainfully call the philosophical aspect of the problem. They unwittingly support the case of censorship, inquisition, religious intolerance, and the persecution of dissenters."
Mises was talking about drugs, but it’s certainly no less true with food.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute and editor-in-chief of the Campaign for Liberty. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.