Government Should Stop Treating Obesity as a Problem, It’s Not | Charles Amos

Britain is very fat. Indeed, 62% of the public is overweight or obese. Unfortunately, the government views this as a problem.

As announced last Thursday, the Department for Health is attempting to tackle this by investing £100m in health apps, personal coaches and weight management groups. Indeed, the obese may even be paid to exercise to lose weight. It’s hoped these schemes will promote `healthier lifestyle choices`.

In a liberal society, government should be doing nothing of the sort. Health is a value to the individual, but it’s not the only one. Yet government policy seems to assume there’s an objective ideal weight; a weight all men should drive towards, regardless of trade offs. The sugar tax, ban on online HFSS advertising and now these schemes are all demonstrative of this. The government has adopted a narrow conception of the good life, and wishes to tax, subsidise and regulate the British people into adopting it.

This ideal is an illusion; there is nothing wrong with being overweight or obese. Conceptions of the good life are unique to each individual, what is good for some will be bad for others. An individual who wishes to eat a lot and do little exercise, who becomes overweight, is following his conception of the good life. To tax or regulate his eating habits is only to hinder the fulfilment of his own happiness.

The fact the overweight may die earlier is irrelevant. An additional hour of life is not infinitely valuable. Implicitly we admit this point everyday. After all we all eat bacon rolls and accept the slightly increased chance of contracting heart disease, and therefore dying earlier. No doubt some will now think that’s true “within reason”.

This is false. If having a bacon roll every week knocked ten minutes of your lifespan, yet having three a week  knocked off 90 minutes, on what grounds does the proponent of bacon roll consumption “within reason” rest objecting to the higher consumption? Why is giving up ten minutes of life for a bacon roll acceptable, but not 30 minutes? How do you draw the line? 

There are no grounds on which to draw the line. Value is subjective to each individual, and if the overweight man prefers three bacon rolls to 90 minutes more life, he is being perfectly rational in fulfilling his conception of the good life. As Ludwig von Mises once wrote:

`If a man drinks wine and not water I cannot say he is acting irrationally. At most I can say that in his place I would not do so. But his pursuit of happiness is his own business, not mine.`

How does this exactly relate to the £100m recently announced for tackling obesity? My reader is quite right to say the health app or enrolling in weight management groups won’t be compulsory, so no conception of the good life is being forced upon people. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with the schemes themselves.

The fundamental issue is the £100m investment will be financed by taxation. Instead of being neutral between different conceptions of the good life, the state will tax some lifestyles to subsidise others. Essentially, the happily overweight will be forced to pay a higher price on their restaurant meals, so the guilty-feeling overweight can get coaching on losing fat. This is an unjustifiable use of taxation: Individuals should be free to pursue their own conceptions of the good life without burdensome taxation to support the desired lifestyles of others. As I have outlined, there is no objective conception of the good life, certainly not concerning food consumption anyway: There can be no argument of this lifestyle being intrinsically better than another. 

Nonetheless, some may still say funding weight loss helps people fulfil what they “really” want to do i.e. their “real” conception of the good life. What some individuals do and what they “really” want are said to be two very different things.  Indeed, in 2019 38% of people said they were trying to lose weight, and many probably failed. It is then argued these individuals should be helped to fulfil what they “really” want to do.

However, this argument justifies absurd measures. If government is going to subsidise individuals in pursuing what they “really” want to do, the sky becomes the limit. Is government supposed to subsidise hobbies such as painting and piano playing then, many people “really” want to take these up, but never do?  Should it employ painting coaches, or pay new pianists for every scale learnt? If my reader answers no, then they too deny the justification for funding weight loss: Namely, the government should fund or subsidise what people “really” want to do, but nonetheless don’t.

No one is denying what people “really” (or, or more accurately, ideally) want to do is in many cases different to what they actually end up doing, but this isn’t a good enough justification to warrant taxation to fund or subsidise the relevant activity.

Besides, the private sector makes services available, which once bought, lock you into pursuing what you “really” want to do anyway. Your moments of strong commitment to losing weight e.g. signing up to a private exercise class, can ensure your `lower` self is governed by your `higher` self. Weight Watchers offer full in-person training, app and mentoring from as little as £2.65 a week. Given we’re talking about the overweight and obese here; one could hardly argue they can’t afford it.

Nonetheless, let me pre-empt the almost inevitable reply that the overweight poor can’t afford a healthy diet. As the IEA’s Christopher Snowdon has demonstrated it’s simply a myth to say eating healthy food is more expensive than buying “junk” food. Consumers can adequately acquire their `five a day`, for less than a £1 a day. That means a minimum wage worker need only work less than an hour to provide for a whole week of his expenditure on fruit and vegetables.

Indeed, the bottom 10% of households spend 4.1% of their disposable income on cakes, biscuits, buns, chocolate, sweets, ice cream, soft drinks and alcohol. This compares to 2.9% on fruit and vegetables. By purchasing a quarter less “junk” food the poorest in society could increase their fruit and vegetable consumption by a third. Basically, being poor is no excuse for eating “junk” food, if, and I stress this conditional, you wish to lose weight.

Nevertheless, the elephant in the room to this discussion has been the NHS. Proponents of the £100m investment rightly point to the fiscal spillover cost of obesity, which net is around £2.47bn. Taxation is therefore £2.47bn higher as result of the overweight and obese failing to pay their way for their lifestyle.

However, these facts still don’t warrant the £100m investment. First, the £100m probably won’t reduce the NHS obesity bill by more than £100m, meaning the scheme will probably increase the net fiscal cost of obesity, meaning taxation must increase. And second, there are far more effective ways of ensuring the overweight pay their way.

The government could charge the overweight for the additional costs they imposed on the NHS compared to healthy individuals. The £2.47bn could be charged to those who incurred the costs. Undoubtedly, it will be suggested the poor obese couldn’t afford the bills, so the government must stick to the outlined schemes. Nonetheless, the very poor could be charged by deducting the additional cost of treatment from their benefits over a period of years.

I’ve almost become overweight during lockdown, and I don’t regret it at all. I like my food, and I’m willing to face the consequences of that. I take no issue with those who wish to lose weight, but what I do object to is politicians insisting upon taxing the happily overweight to subsidise the unhappily overweight. Ultimately, the waistline of the individual is nothing to do with the state, nor should it ever.

Photo Credit.

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