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February 10, 2004
First, They Came For The Smokers ...

The forces of those who know what's best for you are gathering again to strip more personal choice from you -- this time aiming at your diet:

"Clearly, the obesity epidemic over the last 20 years is driven by something in our environment," says Robert Jeffery, professor and interim chairman of the division of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota. He also researches public policy for the Minnesota Obesity Center. "Our basic biology has not changed." ...

"To get the most bang for your buck, if we want people to change, then we should change the price structure of food," Jeffery says. Higher costs for unhealthful foods are one way, as is done elsewhere through taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. But the public resists those costs, Jeffery notes.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune has pushed this issue over the past year or so, quoting liberally from those who want to either start taxing "bad" foods or press lawsuits against fast-food vendors in order to limit the choices available to consumers. In a related story, the Strib conducted a poll on obesity and makes Minnesotan reluctance to hike taxes on certain foods seem hypocritical:

About 2.4 million adults in Minnesota are at least 30 pounds overweight, so it's easy to see why most Minnesotans agree we need to change our course, especially when it involves children. Take junk food in the school vending machines. Literally. Get rid of it, they say. And those Happy Meal ads blaring betwixt and between the cartoon shows (the ones that sabotage the best efforts of the home cook)? Perhaps folks are none too happy about temptations that entice kids at their most vulnerable moment, plopped in front of the TV. Most want limits on those ads.

But when it comes to hitting us where it hurts -- the wallet -- we are less strident. No new taxes on food, we say, even when it's the unhealthful stuff. As for legal protections for those who are obese -- similar to those for the disabled -- most of us support such sanctions. Yet plenty of us oppose any special protections.

However, it's hardly hypocritical to believe that we need to control the food content of our children's diets as parents and want our schools to avoid undermining that parental privelege and at the same time believe that government shouldn't act as a parent to 200 million adults who are capable of making their own decisions. Once again, we have a group of people who get frustrated when years of advocacy do not deliver desired results, and turn to regulation and litigation to achieve them instead. It's a different worldview; they see all liberty as a grant from the government, not government as a grant from a free people, which is why their poll shows that Democrats are far more likely to support price controls on objectionable food. The analogy used by the Strib writer illustrates this perfectly:

Amid a cholera epidemic, a community's water pump was found to be contaminated. To protect the town and prevent further illness, residents were taught what -- and how -- to keep clean. But, and this was the glitch, to bring cholera to an end, everyone had to be taught and everyone had to follow the recommendations.

Someone finally pointed out that the solution was to fix the pump.

Of course, not all food comes from one source, something that escapes the writer of this article; food comes from many sources, the result of our free market. Different foods are manufactured in response to demand, and the pricing of the food depends on that demand in opposition to its supply. Obesity-policy advocates propose to artificially tilt the market by overtaxing some foods, driving people to choose other foods, but it's not as simple as that. For one thing, the food industry employs a great number of people, and an even greater number of people invest in these companies. Toying with the market will result in large job losses and retirement-fund instability. Who do you think will be the most affected by these changes? The low- and middle-income families these advocates profess to protect through government interference.

But more than the economic consequences, the erosion of liberty is the paramount concern. At what point do we get to make our own decisions about our lives? People who claim to protect us from ourselves present our gravest threat to freedom, the more so because they are sincere in their desire to do good. They know best about what we need, and individuals who follow their advice as a matter of personal choice would benefit from doing so. But when they try to leverage the power of the government to dictate and limit the choices available to us on such a basic issue as the food we eat, the cure becomes more deadly than the disease. Like the NY Times article which advocated limiting consumer choice in general in order to promote "happiness", it reduces all of us to the level of children with government as the nanny, doling out what the poor dears need and slapping our hands when we don't choose what's best for us.

Critics will respond that obesity places heavy costs on the economy, mostly through the overuse of health-care resources and absenteeism from the workplace. It's the same excuse that generated the mind-boggling litigation against tobacco producers and the liquor industry. Government intrusion on the health-care industry allows this argument to be made, and demonstrates the dangerous road we have tread when we allowed the government to become a primary source of funding for medical services. What people fail to understand is that when we empower government to solve our personal problems, there is a price to be paid beyond the taxes collected. Each decision we abdicate to our government reduces our liberty a little bit more.

First they came for the smokers, and that was okay, because tobacco is evil and deadly, so no one questioned the legal sacking of the corporations that provided it -- even though anyone who started smoking after 1963 did so in defiance of warning labels on the product that told people it was deadly to do so. Next they came for the gun owners but were driven back. Now they've come for your dinner plate. How much more of this has to happen before people finally wake up?

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 10, 2004 6:20 AM

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