A recent Wall Street Journal “Best of the Web” column included an amusing bit of snark:

Paul R. Ehrlich, Call Your Office –
World faces ‘staggering obesity challenge: study.”

For those unaware, Paul R. Ehrlich wrote a book called The Population Bomb, wherein he posited that the human race was headed towards mass starvation and die-off in the 1970s and 1980s (the book was published in 1968). Obviously, that didn’t happen, and here, 50 years later, we have people fretting about mass obesity. Ehrlich’s book, its best-seller status notwithstanding, didn’t present a new idea: Thomas Malthus made similar predictions two centuries ago, positing that human populations would inevitably outgrow humans’ ability to feed them.

Malthus was wrong. Ehrlich was wrong. Our ability to feed ourselves has been outpacing our population growth for a long time, and there is absolutely no indication that this will change. Indeed, agricultural technology has enabled us to retire farmland in America. And, worldwide, as societies advance to First World status, their birth rates decline (oftentimes below replacement rate, which presents its own problems, but that’s a discussion for another day).

One nugget that caught my eye in the linked source for the quoted study was this:

As well as the medical challenges these people will face, the costs to countries’ health systems will be enormous.

While I’m tempted to question the certitude of this prediction (the obese, like smokers, tend to die younger, and thus may be less likely to live long enough to come down with (expensive) late-life diseases. I’d call the statement probable, not irrefutable), I’ll take it at face value for the purposes of discussing governments’ possible responses.

I’ve written on[several occasions about the “bootstrapping” nature of some government actions, including socialized medicine. If government takes it upon itself to provide some sort of good or service, it will typically then assert a right to impose rules and mandates upon recipients. In voluntary exchanges, that would be “he who pays the piper calls the tune,” and would be legitimate. But, when government forces participation, as is the case with any nationalized/socialized medicine scheme (yes, “single payer” is socialized medicine and is government force, given that you can’t opt out and not pay taxes that fund it), its claim of a right to demand behaviors is illegitimate.

Illegitimacy is rarely a pre-emptive obstacle, though. With a “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” mentality, statist politicians will seek to modify our behaviors, by law and regulation, dare the courts to slap them down, and excuse the infringements on liberty with platitudes about “caring.”

So far, these behavioral modifiers have been limited to certain bans (e.g. trans fats) and certain taxes (e.g. sugary beverage, tobacco). But, I don’t expect pols, faced with an “obesity epidemic” (note the scary language, as if fatness is a communicable disease), to settle for that. Especially since these bans and taxes aren’t going to resolve the “obesity epidemic” (when does government “persuasion” of this sort ever work as intended?).

What might we expect from a government that both refuses to acknowledge its culpability in the “obesity epidemic” and its inability to steer people away from behaviors they like? We know that government is good at two things: taking good ideas and turning them to shit, and insisting on repeating bad ideas and ineffective or counterproductive policies.

In the former case, some do-gooders decided, decades back, that it would be proper for the government to issue dietary guidelines, to help citizens be healthier. Thus emergeth the food pyramid. Problem was, it was wrong. It told us to eschew fats, limit proteins, and gorge on carbs. Fast forward a few decades, and we are suddenly an obese nation.

In the latter case, we witness the efforts to combat that obesity center on forcible behavior modification i.e. the aforementioned bans and taxes. Note what happened: In telling us that fats and proteins were bad, the government end-arounded our bodies’ natural reactions i.e. that we feel “full” after eating them. Breads, on the other hand, never fill us up as well, and the full feeling doesn’t last. So, we eat more, eat more often, and get fat. Simplistic? Certainly, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And, now, science supports the rewriting of the food pyramid. Unfortunately, the market and the culture responded to our carb-heavy ways, we’ve grown used to super-sizing french fries and endless baskets of bread sticks, and undoing the harm of that helpful suggestion has proven difficult.

Error correction is not the government’s forte, in any case. So, instead of a whole-hearted reversal of past mistakes, politicians are trying that which they know how to do best: write more laws and institute more restrictions.

And, that’s what I expect them to continue to do. How long before we start seeing taxes on “sinful” foods, like ice cream, donuts, potato chips, and the like? Will politicians impose a “health tax” on beer the way they wish to on sugary soft drinks? Will someone come up with the idea of imposing a “calorie tax” on restaurant items? They’ve already mandated that chains list calorie counts on their menu boards, so it wouldn’t be hard to tack on a tax based on caloric content, to “encourage” us to pick healthier fare. Outback’s Bloomin’ Onion has 800 calories, nearly all of them empty, so why not feed the health care system by taxing those who choose to eat it?

If we want to take matters a step further in the Orwellian/Brave New World direction, it’s not hard to imagine a health tax based on some measure of your personal fitness. While it sounds absurd to think that some politician today would propose a Body Mass Index tax, give it a decade or two. Or, perhaps a biomonitor that tracks your footsteps and credits you for every one you take, against some baseline minimum. Or, perhaps, fat camps, where those deemed ‘at risk’ are required to attend. What’s in the realm of the absurd today may easily be considered “necessary” as the obesity epidemic burdens public health systems.

Of course, the free market could and would easily address the economics of obesity, if only permitted to do so. But, NOOOOooo, we can’t have that, because there’s no empty promise of utopian outcome, there’s no rein of power to be held by those who covet it, there’s no opportunity for some to pretend they care by voting for politicians who’ll forcibly take other people’s money to help those you think should be helped, there’s no ability to control others’ lives against their will, and there’s no opportunity to create a new revenue stream for the government and its spendthrifts.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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