I wish I weighed a little bit less. Or a lot less. And I often
fear, to paraphrase Kingsley Amis, that I'm heading in the wrong
direction, that inside of me is an even fatter me waiting to get
I'm not alone. A recent study found that 80% of the American
people are overweight. Many of us seem to have trouble saying
no to that second piece of pie, the super-sizing of fries and
the longing to lay on the couch burning up as few calories as
I have always thought of my weight as kind of personal. It often
is. When I get my driver's license and the clerk ask my weight,
I'm on the honor system. The clerk demands an eye test, but there's
no scale. A confessionI take what I actually weigh and what
I'd like to weigh and split the difference. So far, even the security
people at the airport let me get away with this deception.
But like everything else these days, the personal is political.
Some people say my weight problem is your problem and vice versa.
Obesity is related to higher risks of heart disease, cancer, stroke,
diabetes and lots of other unpleasant outcomes.
According to the Surgeon General of the United States, obesity
costs the United States $117 billion a year. It's reaching "epidemic
proportions." He estimates that as many as 300,000 people may
die prematurely due to obesity, approaching the death toll from
There are two magic words in the Surgeon General's languageepidemic
and tobacco. Using the word epidemic conveys the impression that
obesity is a disease and therefore an appropriate concern of the
nation's premier public health official. It suggests that personal
choice and responsibility are irrelevant. And by invoking tobacco,
he sets the stage for regulation and other intervention to help
us get thinner.
I have a different perspective. For most of us, obesity is not
a disease but a failure of self-control. It's in the same category
as procrastination, impatience and many other character traits
I try to improve. I don't want the government hectoring me to
eat less and exercise more. I don't want the government using
my money and yours to monitor my fat intake or the cholesterol
allowed in the menu at the local fast food restaurant. And I don't
want the government taxing fat on menus, at groceries or on my
I don't have a problem with puritans who urge me to eat healthier
foods or take smaller portions. There's something charming about
exhorting others to be better. That's what preaching is all about.
But preaching is best done on one's own nickel. That's why the
Constitution forbids government establishment of religion. Otherwise
you risk the road to tyranny where the government decides how
we should lead our lives.
The government should stay out of other personal choices I make
for the same reasons.
But if obesity causes health problems, doesn't that justify
government's involvement? After all, if we taxpayers have to foot
the bill for some of those higher health care costs, don't we
have the right to intervene in each others lives?
This argument has been used to justify the on-going and growing
regulation of tobacco. It's actually a lie. Smoking causes people
to die earlier and relatively quickly, saving enough in Social
Security expenditures to overwhelm the health care outlays. That
actually justifies subsidizing tobacco rather than taxing it if
you think that we should base public policy based only on the
impact on government spending.
I think that logic is grotesque. But it's more than grotesque.
It's dangerous. AIDS is a very costly disease, and some of those
costs are born by taxpayers. AIDS is associated with certain sexual
practices. Does that justify government regulation in the bedroom?
I don't think so. But my eating habits or yours don't justify
the government's involvement in the kitchen, either.