Posted by: bkivey | 29 December 2010

Fat Asses in a Fat Land

Over the last several years there has been increasing political attention paid to our national weight gain. Professional busybodies from the First Lady on down have been referring to the new American expansionism with increasing alarm. Obviously, this is a Problem that We Have To Do Something About Right Now!

Much as it pains me to see people on the street who are not just a little overweight but how-can-you-have-any-self-respect obese, unlike the conspicuously compassionate I understand that with the exception of uncommon psychological and even rarer physical disease obesity begins at home. Specifically, it begins with the individual. People are not coerced into shoving food in their mouths. Proponents of the nanny state would argue that yes, they are. Look at the onslaught of food advertising. I would say that it’s a weak individual who allows their diet to be defined by others, and a poor parent indeed who can’t tell their children no. Advertising is choice, not direction.

Other control-minded people have attempted to cast obesity as a threat to national security. The argument runs along the lines that the armed forces will have problems recruiting sufficient people to fulfill their missions. Besides noting that the people who make this argument are usually in opposition to the very concept of an armed force, and that anyone invoking ‘national security’ while calling for increased state control should be immediately suspect, the services don’t seem to be having any problem at all fulfilling their recruiting goals. My experience with members of the armed forces is that folks generally, and in combat units particularly, take a lot of pride in their physical fitness and work hard to stay in shape. It’s their job. People looking to join the armed forces know what the entrance requirements are: reason enough to lose some weight.

As is so often the case, the very people expressing the most alarm are the ones who precipitated the problem in the first place and continue to function as enablers now. The gradual elimination of recess in schools and the media presentation of anomalous events as common occurences have militated against physical opportunities for children. As parents have been made fearful of letting their kids play outside unsupervised they have been ever more content to let them sit in front of a screen for their recreation.

One cannot say that people are unaware of the consequences of obesity or how to avoid it. Health and nutrition classes are a requirement in most, if not all school districts. Nutrition guidelines are freely and readily available, packaged foods are adorned with mandatory nutrition labeling, and most restaurant chains have nutrition information on their websites, if not in the establishment itself. If someone is fat, it can hardly be said that they don’t know better.

I would argue that the largest contributing factor to the national obesity epidemic is the loss of social stigma associated with being fat. When I was a child it was uncommon to see a fat adult, much less a fat child. Fat kids were laughed at, and they didn’t get picked for teams. No one wanted to be the fat kid. Cruel? Harsh? Perhaps. But the effect of stigmatization of controllable behaviour in society is that it leads to self-correcting results.

Now the same group of folks who decreed that stigmatization was unacceptable have found that they need to restrict people’s freedom by fiat so that individuals can’t make choices they wouldn’t have made in a society with more choices and less tolerance. In their quest for Never Never Land progressives have once again demonstrated their fundamental ignorance of human behaviour.

Much has been made of the health cost of obesity, both for the individual and society. These costs are significant and real, and again the lack of societal intolerance for obesity has brought on a call for freedom-smothering regulation. I would propose that a more effective, less intrusive, and fairer solution would be to let the market work much as it does now. If the obese want health coverage, they pay more for it. Physicians might charge more for some procedures because fat people are harder to work on. Absent some physical or psychological defect the obese might be barred from making ADA claims. Voluntary behaviour is not a disability. The only people with increased financial exposure are the fat. If this all seems a bit discriminatory, it is, but smokers and airline passengers are subject to the same penalties and more.

Discrimination against undesirable voluntary behaviour is a virtue in a functional society. Removing social stigma also removes the incentive for personal responsibility. Successful societies throughout history have operated on the principle that the good of the many outweighs the misery of the few. If the people calling for ever greater state involvement in people’s lives really were concerned about their fellow citizen’s health and not their own aggrandizement, they’d pressure the individual and leave the rest of us alone.

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