Commentary

Government Has No Business Interfering With What You Eat

Nutrition activists are agitating for a panoply of initiatives that would bring the government between you and your waistline. President Bush earmarked $125 million in his budget for the encouragement of healthy lifestyles. State legislatures and school boards have begun banning snacks and soda from school campuses and vending machines. Several state legislators and Oakland, Calif., Mayor Jerry Brown, among others, have called for a “fat tax” on high-calorie foods. Congress is considering menu-labeling legislation that would force chain restaurants to list fat, sodium and calories for each item.

That is precisely the wrong way to fight obesity. Instead of intervening in the array of food options available to Americans, our government ought to be working to foster a personal sense of responsibility for our health and well-being.

We’re doing just the opposite. For decades, America’s health-care system has been migrating toward nationalized medicine. We have a law that requires some Americans to pay for other Americans’ medicine, and several states bar health insurers from charging lower premiums to people who stay fit. That removes the financial incentive for making healthy decisions. Worse, socialized health care makes us troublingly tolerant of government trespasses on our personal freedom. If my neighbor’s heart attack shows up on my tax bill, I’m more likely to support state regulation of what he eats—restrictions on what grocery stores can put on their shelves, for example, or what McDonald’s can put between its sesame-seed buns.

The best way to combat the public-health threat of obesity is to remove obesity from the realm of “public health.” It’s difficult to think of a matter more private and less public than what we choose to put in our bodies. Give Americans moral, financial and personal responsibility for their own health, and obesity is no longer a public matter but a private one—with all the costs, concerns and worries of being overweight borne only by those people who are actually overweight.

Let each of us take full responsibility for our diet and lifestyle. We’re likely to make better decisions when someone else isn’t paying for the consequences.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.