Sheldon Richman | February 1, 2009

BMI Screening Smacks of Big Brother

Sheldon Richman

Should Oklahoma's state-run schools monitor kids' body mass index (BMI)? Even if BMI were a reliable guide to health and even if the program is to be voluntary, as its sponsor insists, the answer is surely no.

To understand why, we must look at the full context.

We grow up learning that America is a free society, and in many respects it is. But it's becoming less so all the time. Government is now involved in all aspects of life, and increasingly in areas that were once regarded as strictly off limits. For decades the federal government has promoted dietary guidelines, even though it revises them regularly in light of new fads and findings (which are soon contradicted by other research). State and local governments enthusiastically prohibit restaurants from preparing food with trans fats or from allowing smoking on private property.

Why is this any of the government's business? If people can't be expected to look after their own-and their children's-health, how can they be counted on to elect competent officials through the democratic process? Now there's a question that begs for an answer.

The conception of government as the overseer of people's health has been given a name by Dr. Thomas Szasz, a long-time critic of this role: the Therapeutic State. The upshot of Szasz's critique is that although the American people would never tolerate such violations of privacy and liberty proffered in the name of religion, they routinely accept such violations when presented as medical or science-based prescriptions. Freedom, he says, requires a separation of medicine and state just as much as separation of church and state.

Some people might agree with all this, but insist that the rules should be different for children, who cannot make their own choices. Is there validity to this view?


The proposal to have schools monitor kids' BMI may sound harmless, but it is objectionable both in itself and as a precedent for further intervention. In a free society the family is recognized as the best guardian of children. This doesn't mean it is perfect, but since the only alternative is the impersonal, bureaucratic state-a far inferior overseer of children-the family has been embraced by free people everywhere.

Like any institution, the family is what it does, with childrearing at the top of the list. Take away its functions and the family withers as a meaningful entity. And as the family withers, the government inexorably grows. Proposals such as nutrition monitoring in schools are based on concerns that some parents neglect their children, although all children would be caught in the net. But has it occurred to the advocates of monitoring that after decades of government intrusion, especially with low-income families, such neglect has been encouraged by government policy? Why bother with something if you are led to believe the experts have it well in hand?

State Rep. Richard Morrissette (D-Oklahoma City), sponsor of the proposed legislation, writes: "Without a better method of assessment, they [children] are at-risk for malnutrition and all that comes with that preventable condition: Loss of IQ, an entire range of social dysfunction issues to include drop-out/truancy/classroom disruption, unemployment, incarceration, special education, law enforcement and medical needs.

"The cost to Chamber of Commerce concerns, such as a community's ability to attract and keep better business, is incalculable. And, every state's budget is crippled by the affects [sic]."

Morrissette's unstated premise-one that should concern everyone-is that the state is the ultimate parent of every child. Indeed, the child is virtually the property of the state. How else to explain that state schools must monitor children's nutrition lest the business climate and the state budget be put in jeopardy?

But, some will ask, how can we take the chance that some parents will neglect their children's nutrition? It is an ominous sign of the times that people can imagine no other solution to a potential problem than a government program. It's time we looked to private, voluntary community organizations to render assistance to families as needed, rather than to the cold bureaucracy that has its own agenda and well-documented foibles.

The vision of government-run schools claiming an interest in children's nutrition is eerily reminiscent of the state's approach to children in the European despotisms of the 1930s. It has no place in America.

A former senior editor at the Cato Institute, Sheldon Richman is editor of The Freeman, published by The Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York.

Sheldon Richman

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