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Food: The Coming Assault

December 23, 2004

Obesity may be an individual problem. It may be a problem that afflicts many individuals. Or maybe it is not a problem at all, since it is perfectly consistent with the idea of freedom that people are entitled to eat well, get fat, and die young. But one thing we can know for sure: obesity is not a social problem in the sense that this phrase is usually employed.

Reuters reports that a study from the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University states that "With current trends of increasing overweight and obesity afflicting all age groups, urgent preventive measures are required not only to lessen the burden of disease and disability associated with excess weight but also to contain future health care costs incurred by the aging population."

According to the report, recent "annual average Medicare charges for severely obese men were $6,192 more than for non-overweight men—84 percent higher." Reuters reported that "For severely obese women, annual average charges were $5,618 more, or 88 percent higher than for women not overweight" and that "For men the total average annual Medicare charges for those not overweight were $7,205, for the overweight $8,390, for the obese $10,128 and for the severely obese $13,674."

Now this report is important for a variety of reasons. For one, the data do bode ill for the obese among us—we are not only likely to die sooner than the fit but if we live on, we will be doing so badly and it'll cost a lot to treat us.

Another important and alarming aspect of the report is that it treats obesity as if it were some kind of act of nature, something with which one is afflicted, like a viral disease, not as a self-inflicted condition for which those who are suffering from it are responsible.  Once again, people are denied their fundamental human capacity to make choices in life and instead seen as zombies or nonhuman animals doing what they are forced to do by factors outside their own control.

What other health related issue recently came to light in this fashion and what were the results? Remember tobacco and the humongous sums with which tobacco firms were fined? They, too, rested on the contention that tobacco smoking caused not only serious health problems for smokers but also major economic burdens for the "heath care system."

In light of all the government propaganda about what ails America and the world—the global warming scam being just one of them—I must say I don't trust the latest study as far as I can throw an obese person! This is because of the way the study conclusions are worded, namely, omitting very assiduously any mention that obese folks—of whom I am a member, judging by my scores (I should lose quite a bunch of weight)—are responsible for getting that way. But since costs need to be borne by some, who do you think is the next best candidate for bearing them?

Yes, it will be various major corporations that are in the business of selling the goods and services that can make customers fat. McDonalds comes to mind, as do the rest of the fast food firms, as well as all those that produce beef, pork, and the rest of fatty foods.

A country's financial burdens arise from mismanagement—government is subject to the dynamics of always spending more than it has on hand to cover its expenses. This is one of the symptoms of the tragedy of the commons, in this case, of the treasury which everyone wants to use via the political process. It is also predicted by public choice theory. So the result is literal bankruptcy.

Taxation, that vicious extortionist scheme, is being widely resisted by citizens these days, so the new tactic is to go after the big bad corporations that Ralph Nader uses on each presidential run lately for his demagogic purposes.

The study at the Feinberg School is, I am willing to bet, the most recent move in the direction of suing all those American companies whose products and services can be used to get obese.

One public policy disaster begets another and another—but governments never go out of business because of their mismanagement and the malpractice of their administrators. Instead, they dump the results of these on us all, even if we had nothing to do with the matter.

My obesity ought to be my problem, not that of my neighbors. But that ideal of individual responsibility is now nearly dead among public policy experts; there isn't any money in it for them.

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Tibor Machan is R.C. Hoiles Professor of Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, Orange, CA. tmachan@link.freedom.com. See his archive.  Comment on the blog.


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