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Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Barbara Kay:

Rich countries are getting fatter, but on the whole it isn’t rich people who are gaining weight (except for Hillary Clinton, who has gained 40 pounds and has — according to the edition of the National Enquirer I was reading at the supermarket — been put on a macrobiotic diet by daughter Chelsea).

Half the adults in this country are either overweight or obese, according to Statistics Canada. A new study says obesity is costing us about $30-billion a year. So even the most ardent libertarian can’t realistically claim it isn’t the government’s business what people weigh. It is. Unfortunately, the government has so far not come up with a successful strategy for stemming the trend.

Hi Barbara. I'm Publius. That's not my real name actually. It's my blogging name. Long story.

You've probably never heard of me, but I'm what you'd describe as an "ardent libertarian." Technically, I'm a classical liberal. I won't get into details. For the purposes of this blog post, we're about the same thing. As you've probably guessed, I'm taking umbrage - my word for the day - at your arguing that people like me can't "realistically claim it isn't government's business what people weigh." 

By definition libertarians / classical liberals do claim that what people weigh is none of the government's business. The business of government is to protect their citizens' individual rights - in short, Life, Liberty and Property - from domestic criminals and foreign aggressors. Nowhere in that pro-freedom laundry list does "balanced diet" appear. Neither the founding fathers of this country, or our American brethren, thought it was the business of government to keep people trim. They didn't even think it was the business of government to provide free health care, no matter how crappy. 

I'm not trying to be obtuse here. Nor politically finicky. We are not pro-fat. Most of us, in fact, are actually pretty thin. The living-in-our-parents basements cliches aside. Obesity certainly is a problem. Just as being too thin is a health problem as well. An ideal body weight is something that varies from individual to individual, and depends on body type, stage in the lifecycle and assorted genetic factors. Like the ads say, speak to your physician.

Like you, Barbara, I'm not a dietician. Still, you don't need a community college certificate to know that being obese is unhealthy. It also doesn't take a government statistician, shifting through reams of long-form census data, to realize that Canadians are getting fatter. On my rare trips to Wal-Mart - the bargains are irresistible - I spend much of the time dodging the woolly mammoths in the cookie aisle. My thinking is - really and truly - much the same as yours, Barbara.

An eye full - sometimes two eye fulls with certain egregious examples - of these larded monstrosities and I'm also doing the math. How much of this fatty excess is being subsidized by my tax bill? When I need a doctor - probably from exhaustion as a tax serf- will his MD brain be ready to help me? Or, instead, will all those IQ points be focused on keeping the albatross in the next bed from going into cardiac arrest again?

Then you've got to think about the Chinese and Indians. God, they are hard working. All very thin. Too busy to eat, I think. Always coming up with new ways to make their cheap crap even cheaper, and perhaps less crappier.  I don't think there are any fat people in China. Certainly you don't see them in The Economist features on how the Chinese are buying everything. China at the Crossroads of Cheap Crap Making. That kind of thing. A nation of fatted cows can't compete with them.

So we agree there is a problem. Fat is bad. It's like smoking (tobacco), or drinking like a Mad Man era executive. As you point out in your column, Barbara, governments have had a lousy track record of trying to solve the fat problem. It just seems to stump them. Like opening those ketchup packages, it seems to require some finesse. Or perhaps a pair of scissors.

One of the things that conservatives, libertarians and classical liberals agree on is that governments aren't very good at running things. Thousands of government bureaucrats and politicians have not - not here, not elsewhere - come up with a solution to the fat crisis. You rightly ridicule a pretty silly idea - about giving every Canadian $5000 to develop a health plan.

Thing is, Barbara, the ideas are all pretty silly. Even those government fitness ads, with that nice inter-racial couple, convinced no one. If anything those ads annoyed millions of Canadians. The actors come off as being keen, intelligent go-getters. The kind of people most fat people hate, because they'll never be like them.

Given government's lousy track-record, why look to them for a solution? A government thinking it has a right to worry about people's weight, is a very ambitious government indeed. Ambitious governments - history teaches us - are dangerous governments. We do, however, have a problem. Government, however, isn't the solution.

So what is? The market? Sort of. It's something broader called civil society. That's a fancy way of saying everyone and everything except government. It's that part of society that works by consent and persuasion. Being fat isn't a problem for government, it is a problem for civil society.

It's a problem for employers who have less productive employees. in a free society they can choose whether or not to retain such employees, and not have to fear being slapped with a Human Rights complaint. Health insurers can choose - as they almost certainly would, if allowed - to hit fatter customers with higher premiums. Want to be fat? Sure. But the rest of us have the right - indeed the moral obligation - to shift that burden onto those responsible.

The fault, dear Barbara, lies not in the Clown or the King, or even the Colonel, with his finger licking goodness. It lies with ourselves. Whatever the genetics, whatever the Madison Avenue brainwashing, the fat are usually fat because they eat more than they exercise. Nature never intended human beings to weight as much as Japanese sub-compacts.

The widening waistlines of the Dominion are not just the product of super-sized fries and ubiquitous automobile transport. The larded ones know that in a socialized health care system you pay based on your income bracket, not your BMI. When gains are privatized - in the literal sense of bigger bellies - and the costs socialized - in the sense of thinner wallets for everyone else - don't be surprised if the fat population explodes. Pardon the image.

Now some people might object to me blaming Medicare for the obesity crisis. Don't Americans have a free market in health care? Aren't they are even fatter? Well, not exactly. Yes, they are fatter but America has a partially socialized health care system. The poor have access to what is called Medicaid in most states. For them the burden of their bloated existences is carried by that aggrieved minority, the American taxpayer.

Being fat is being irresponsible. Some people will always be irresponsible. If government plays nanny, cleaning up after them and occasionally scolding their piggy wards, they'll never learn. Treat adults like children and they'll behave like children. Asking government to solve a problem it largely created makes little sense. You might as well have social workers hand out McDonald's coupons.

Posted by Richard Anderson on January 26, 2011 | Permalink


Um, much of the blame for the current obesity issues are directly related to governemnt. First, from the Canada Food guide and second from the methodology of determining how obesity is defined. The Canada Food Guide, if followed rigorously, will increase an individual's insulin response. This hormonal change will lead to an increase in the body's storage of fat and cause a resistance to releasing that fat when needed. Second, the standard measurement of obesity is the Body Mass Index. This index takes into account two factors only, height and weight. It provides a crude appoxoximation of obesitity. A more exeacgt measurement is the percentage of body fat. I have seen athletes who have body fat of less than 10% considered obese by the BMI. Further, the ratio for obesity threshold was lowered resuting in more "obese" people. The day before they were not obese but a day later they were even though they gained no weight. Do a little research on a glory hound scientist named Ancel Keys (who screwed with stats) and a failed lefty politician named George McGovern. It will just make you mad. We have had a 40 year nutrition experiment instigated by crappy science and instituted by ignorant politicians that have resulted in a fatter and unhealthier population. The last thing we need is more government involvement in what we eat.

Posted by: B | 2011-01-26 6:39:28 AM

B is right

Government promoted low fat foods and obesity exploded, as well as diabetes.

Posted by: don b | 2011-01-26 9:13:06 AM

While an interesting point, I suspect that there aren't very many Walmartians who have ever read, let alone follow such nutritional guidelines. Publius has accurately diagnosed the problem. The welfare state incentivizes sloth and penalizes, reduces or eliminates personal responsibility and adult decision-making.

Leviathan humanoids also tend to be a product of mixed economies where the state incentivizes the demand, the supply comes from market-efficient purveyors of low-cost, lipid-rich food. Purer economies such as Laissez-faire Capitalist Hong Kong and its collectivist next door neighbour, (pre-union) demonstrated this quite well with a noticeable lacking in landscape-level obesity.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2011-01-26 10:19:21 AM

More, and cheaper food. Less effort in getting through a typical day. What did they expect would happen?

I run 5 km, three times a week. I do a very light weight routine, and get some exercise during coaching. Since I sold my business, I haven't done much, except sit around. I'm almost 20 lbs overweight, and don't seem to be losing it, even with an exercise regime that's much more robust than most 50 year olds. I eat less than anyone I know, and it looks like I'll have to get a job to lose this 20 lbs.

The real problem is technology. Something as simple as a remote control, or an electric can opener can cause a normal man to put on 10 lbs in a few years. There's a healthy young man on my block with a snowblower. He just looks at me with disdain as I shovel my driveway. By the time he's my age, and I'm in my 80s, I'll be able to kick his ass easily.

One of my routines is to grab a 45 lb kettle weight in each hand, and walk around the indoor running track. You'd be amazed at the number of big, young, cocky bodybuilders who can't carry the weights as far as I can. They usually try it once, and never come back. People just don't do enough work, in their everyday lives, to build real core strength.

Posted by: dp | 2011-01-26 1:16:16 PM

Whatever the social problem, government involvement will only make it worse, never better.

Posted by: Alain | 2011-01-26 1:59:13 PM

"One of the things that conservatives, libertarians and classical liberals agree on is that governments aren't very good at running things."


Posted by: Farmer Joe | 2011-01-26 2:19:44 PM

To paraphrase P.J. O'ROURKE

The Liberals are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the weeds on your lawn. The Conservatives are the party that says government doesn't work and then get elected and prove it.

Posted by: Farmer Joe | 2011-01-26 2:24:19 PM

I have to challenge you on the idea that Indians and Chinese are too busy working to eat. I know quite a few Chinese, and they spend a lot more time eating than most European Canadians. They stay thin because their traditional foods are pretty low in nutrients, compared to ours. They also spend a lot more time cooking, in fact, their society spends more time think about, gathering, preparing, and eating their traditional foods.

This fact actually strengthen the argument that intervention could have an effect on obesity. Unfortunately, it only works on people who pay attention, and that's a very small segment of the population. It's a waste of time, no matter why you disagree with it, morally, or practically.

Posted by: dp | 2011-01-26 4:21:05 PM

It stands to reason that every smoker who quits gains 30 lbs. Henceforth every porker that starts smoking will lose 30 lbs.
I just love it when the solutions all come together.

Posted by: peterj | 2011-01-26 9:38:29 PM

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

Joseph Goebbels
Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda

Think about this every time a politician, bureaucrat or journolister opens his/her mouth to tell us how we should live our lives.

Posted by: B | 2011-01-26 9:52:51 PM

Government encouraged dairy suppliers to produce dairy products with less fat , skim milk and so on.
Obviously that hasnt worked people are fatter than ever, so now what are they gonna do.
Insulin is a fat storing hormone , the more starchy the food the more insulin is created and then ultimately more fat is stored.

Posted by: don b | 2011-01-27 11:31:18 AM

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