Obesity and Statism

Richard Posner, a leader of the law and economics movement, exposes himself as an out-and-out statist:

I am not particularly interested in saving the obese from themselves. I am concerned about the negative externalities of obesity—the costs that the obese impose on others. Some of the others are the purchasers of health insurance and the taxpayers who pay for Medicaid and Medicare and social security disability benefits…. Obesity kills, but slowly, and en route to dying the obese run up heavy bills that, to a great extent, others pay.

Even more serious are the harmful effects of obesity, and of the food habits that contribute to it, on children…. Children who grow up in a household of obese parents (often there is just one parent, and she is obese) very often acquire the same bad habits.

One might think that since most parents are altruistic toward their children, parents would strive to prevent their children from acquiring their bad habits. But if they don’t know how to avoid becoming obese themselves, it is unlikely that they know how to prevent their children from becoming obese.

Then too, the more people in one’s family or circle of friends or coworkers who are obese, the more obesity seems normal. This is an implication of the fact that homo sapiens is a social animal. We want to blend in with our social peers….

Bloomberg’s proposal is widely criticized, not only on the shallow ground that it interferes with freedom of choice, but on the more substantial ground that it can’t have much effect, since the same sugared drinks can be sold in smaller containers…. [I]f the sale of sugared drinks in big containers is forbidden, there will be at least a slight drop in the purchase of those drinks and hence in their consumption….

More important is the symbolic significance of Bloomberg’s proposal (if it is adopted and enforced). It is an attention getter! It tells New Yorkers that obesity is a social problem warranting government intervention, and not just a personal choice.

Think of the history of cigarette regulation…. Cigarette smoking fell, from an average of 40 percent of the adult population in the 1970s to 19 percent today. There is some grumbling about this massive governmental intrusion into consumer choice, but very little. I certainly am not grumbling about it.

If there is to be a parallel movement to reduce obesity, it has to start somewhere. Maybe it will start with Bloomberg’s container proposal—an attention getter. Maybe it will grow. Maybe someday it will be as effective, and receive as much public approbation, as the anti-smoking movement. [From Posner’s post about “Bloomberg, Sugar, and Obesity,” at The Becker-Posner Blog, June 18, 2012.]

There you have a reputedly keen “legal mind” in the throes of economistic thinking. It perfectly illustrates a phenomenon about which I write in “A Man for No Seasons“:

[T]oo many economists justify free markets on utilitarian grounds, that is, because free markets produce more (i.e., are more efficient) than regulated markets. This happens to be true, but free markets can and should be justified mainly because they are free, that is, because they allow individuals to pursue otherwise lawful aims through voluntary, mutually beneficial exchanges of products and services. Liberty is a principle, a deep value; economic efficiency is merely a byproduct of adherence to that value.

It is evident that Posner cares not a jot about liberty; efficiency is his god.

Posner’s facile analysis of the costs of obesity is obviously grounded in an aversion to obese persons. He gives his game away by lauding the anti-cigarette campaign, which is really based on two things:

  • an esthetic revulsion
  • the snobbishness of the middle and upper-middle classes toward their “inferiors.”

The parallels to the anti-obesity campaign are so evident that I need say nothing more on this point.

In any event, the real problem is not obesity. It is that Americans have been forced to accept responsibility for other persons’ health. Posner almost grasps this when he writes about “the purchasers of health insurance and the taxpayers who pay for Medicaid and Medicare and social security disability benefits.” These problems would largely disappear if government did not distort the cost of health insurance through mandates and barriers to entry, and did not force some Americans to subsidize the health care of others through Medicare, Medicaid, and various State and local programs. The consumption of junk food, which Posner correctly indicts as a cause of obesity, is undoubtedly subsidized (indirectly) by welfare payments and food stamps.

The growing fraction of Americans who are considered obese is, in fact, a symptom of the ability of competitive markets to deliver more nourishment at a lower real cost. If obesity is concentrated among low-income groups — and I believe that it is — it means that low-income groups, on the whole, are better nourished than they were in the past. But, in typical fashion, paternalists like Posner focus on the aspects of progress that they find distasteful, while ignoring the larger picture.

If Posner were really serious about saving Americans from the consequences of their own behavior, he would be agitating for a ban on automobiles and the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Oh, prohibition was tried and it failed because of its unintended consequences? My, my, what a surprise.

The unintended consequences of a war on obesity should be obvious to Posner — or would be if he were not blinded by paternalism. Regulators, armed with the power to limit what Americans can consume, would inevitably do great mischief to the health and enjoyment that Americans derive from the preparation and consumption of foodstuffs. Regulators love to impose one-size-fits all restrictions on everyone, instead of allowing individuals and firms to choose those courses of action that best suit them. And so — in the name of health and under the influence of various food-Nazis — regulators would move beyond Bloomberg’s simplistic “solution” to truly draconian measures. Almost anything that is believed to be harmful to some persons (e.g., salt, fat, nuts) would be strictly metered if not banned for all persons. (I have no taste for raw fish, but I would be aghast if those who like sashimi were unable to buy it because of the health risk that accompanies its consumption.) Then there are the opportunities for various interest groups (e.g., American cheese manufacturers) to rig the regulatory game in their favor. In short, it is not far down the regulatory slope from a ban on super-size drinks to a ban on foods that most of us find enjoyable, and even healthful.

But Mrs. Grundy — er, Judge Posner and his ilk — will not be deterred. And if the Grundy-Posners succeed in their paternalistic crusade, they will have turned America into a land of grim, granola-crunching Zombies. For that is liberty, Posner-style.

Related posts:
How to Combat Beauty-ism
The Mind of a Paternalist, Revisited
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Externalities and Statism

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