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Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Is the size of your butt the government’s business?

This, in a nutshell, is the question Jacob Sullum is trying to address in his Reason article. The article opens with the discussion of Kelly Brownell's book, Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It (McGraw-Hill). According to Mr Sullum, Mr Brownell is, ironically, quite portly himself, but that is not the main point of the article, just a humourous aside.

According to Mr Sullum, the book comes up with quite a few recommendations as to what the government ought to do to fight the scourge of obesity. Writes Sullum,

The more important question is why any of this is the government’s business. Granted that obesity is a health issue, why is it a public health issue? The answer from Brownell and like-minded activists is that the government must rescue consumers -- especially children -- from the environmental forces that make them fat, thereby rescuing taxpayers from the burden of obesity-related medical expenses. They propose to accomplish this mission through a combination of taxes, subsidies, censorship, and regulation. In his book Food Fight (co-authored by Katherine Battle Horgen), Brownell says "profound change is necessary." Among other things, the government must "change the basic economics of food," redesign cities so that "times, places, and incentives for people to be physically active [are] engineered into daily life," "prohibit marketing of products to children," "prohibit snack foods and soft drinks from schools," and "prohibit the operation of businesses selling food within a certain distance of schools." If legislatures fail to go along with this agenda, "litigation may be necessary."

The war on fat is the latest manifestation of a collectivist philosophy that says the government has a duty to protect "public health" by discouraging behavior that might lead to disease or injury. It also reflects an anti-capitalist perspective that views people as helpless automatons manipulated into consuming whatever big corporations choose to produce. The anti-fat crusaders want to manipulate us too, but for our own good. They seek to reshape us by reshaping the world.

Jacob Sullum makes a number of convincing arguments as to why the maintenance of one's weight ought to be left up to the individual. I would think that is the right attitude. I think it is legal to fight misrepresentation of products on the part of food manufacturers. I think when a juice manufacturer misstates the sugar content, or when McDonalds fails to inform the public that its French fries are fried in animal fat, that can be cause for litigation. Otherwise, manufacturers are in their right to do what they do best,- make their product and try to market it to the public, and the public must be knowledgeable and responsible enough to know what to consume and when.

I also think it is very dangerous to the society to have governmental intervention in the areas that ought to be controlled by the individual himself. That breeds infantilism and irresponsibility,- the two afflictions from which we already suffer to a significant extent.

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