| February 6, 2013

Food Police Are a Threat to Our Liberties

Oklahoma is the sixth-fattest state in the nation. If that weren’t bad enough, a 2012 report entitled F as in Fat projected the percentage of Oklahomans as being obese to rise from 31 percent to 66 percent, placing us only behind Mississippi on the bathroom scales.

We dare not let Mississippi best us in matters so weighty. Surely the government must do something to stem the tides, right?

The proposals are already on the table: subsidize vegetable production; tax sodas; force restaurants to add calorie labels while banning salt and trans fats; restrict the purchases of food stamp recipients; nix farm policies; force schools and hospitals to source food locally; and, of course, plant a garden on the White House lawn.

While taking action might make us feel good, the economic research shows that none of these policies will have much effect on what we weigh. But, each of these moves (with the exception of removing farm subsidies) will grow the size and reach of government.

This isn’t just a matter of debt-to-GDP ratios, but one of philosophy about the role of government in our lives. Asserting that the government has a role in fighting the obesity “epidemic” seems somewhat benign. But, I suspect you’d take pause if asked whether the government has a role in regulating your weight. Paternalism is most widely accepted when it is thought to be directed toward the failings of other people. A government that usurps the individual’s responsibility to care for his or her self is one that has stepped into dangerous territory. If the government’s role were to produce care-free, untroubled citizens, adding Prozac to the water supply would do the trick.

According to my surveys, more than 80 percent of Americans blame the rise in obesity on individuals (as opposed to restaurants, agribusinesses, farmers, or government). The public isn’t mistaken in their belief. Aside from my own hand, no other has ever forced a donut into my mouth.

Recognizing that genetics plays a role in how much we weigh, it is also true that there are ample incentives for individuals to think about their own weight. Research shows that the obese tend to earn lower wages, incur higher medical costs, pay higher health insurance rates, and die sooner than the non-obese. To these costs one can add the shame felt by the obese when trying to fasten their buckle on an airplane or passing the lines of magazines lining the supermarket checkout line celebrating those socially acceptable body types while demonizing the rest.

Among the fashionable foodie crowd, the concept of individual responsibility is thought quaint and a bit naïve. The government, they say, is the only force big enough to fight back against the nefarious forces acting against our waistlines. To justify this, the food police point to rising public health care costs (particularly Medicare and Medicaid). These public health insurance programs have become crisis engines. The fact is that something will kill us one day, and some ailment will be the leading cause of death. By taking private health care costs and turning them public, the food police have created a perpetual source of public crises that justify government action and their existence.

The food police claim that the obese impose costs on others through increased Medicare and Medicaid spending. Yet, as pointed out in a recent issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, these are really just transfers among people in an insurance pool—not a deadweight loss to society. A few years ago when I broke my leg playing basketball, no one accused me of imposing costs on others when I used my health insurance to pay the costs. They rightly understood that the costs were paid out of a pool designed to cover precisely such risks. If the problem is that some people are riskier than others, the proper solution is to price those risks into the cost of insurance, and yet the government has hamstrung the ability of insurance companies (public and private alike) to do just that.

It is helpful to step back and eschew the hype, such as that in the misleading F as in Fat report, and ask why many Oklahomans today weigh more than their grandparents once did. My grandparents lived, for much of their lives, without plumbing or air conditioning, doing backbreaking labor in the hot sun to pay the bills. They didn’t, for much of their lives, have TV, microwave popcorn, canned biscuits, or, when they had a car, power steering.

So, yes, I might have to work a little harder to fit into my skinny jeans than Grandpa ever did. At least I am fortunate enough to live in a world where my wife doesn’t have to spend half her day cooking and cleaning to feed the family, while I speed off to work in my air-conditioned, automatic Chevy, sipping a caramel-skinny-latte preparing for a day of toil at the keyboard in my well-insulated office. Somehow I think I can take on the extra burden of hitting the gym on the way home.

Jayson Lusk (Ph.D., Kansas State University) is professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University and author of Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate (forthcoming in April 2013 from Crown Forum). He blogs at The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

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