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We could let you be free, but you'd just screw it up

September 12, 2006

Via Scotland: sometimes the simplest arguments for taking away freedom are the scariest:

"So pervasive is poor diet that reliance on individual choice as the prime ideology in shaping food supply is no longer an adequate policy or ideology." It's the ultimate parent-child relationship between us and the state- "We let you have the car keys, and you showed you can't be trusted!" This is the simplest, and at the same time the most sweeping, rationale for taking away any freedom you can imagine; you were allowed to choose, and all you did was make bad choices. As a student in public health (though I study infectious diseases, not obesity), I have followed with interest the public discussion of obesity as an "epidemic" and a "public health crisis". Once it gets framed in these terms, I think there's a progression that's inevitable. There are a lot of difficult questions in public health that have to do with coercion and individual rights, and it's easy for individual rights to come out the loser.

I don't personally believe that every public health practitioner just wants to create the ultimate nanny state and control everyone's behavior, but there's a slope that it's easy to start sliding down. If you think you know what behaviors are best for people, you can try to educate and inform them. But if you try and try that and it doesn't work, maybe coercive alternatives start looking more and more attractive. After all, it's good for people. You just want them to be healthier and happier, right? It's almost as though you gave them a chance and they showed that they're incapable of making the right choices. Why do they deserve to keep choosing for themselves? Add in the idea that since medical care is so socialized, "we're all paying the bills" for other people's bad choices, and coercion may not seem like such a bad thing. Before you know it, we're regulating all aspects of human behavior. I'm not sure how we go backwards, and start removing what are really individual choices from the realm of "public health." Health care reform might be a start. It will be incredibly difficult, but I think it needs to be done if we want to halt the gradual erosion of our freedom in the name of our health.

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