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Government Needs to Lose Weight


How ironic that just as an already-bloated government is taking on major new powers, it is exhorting us to lose weight. But that’s exactly what Surgeon General David Satcher is calling for. In his recently released “Call To Action To Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity,” Satcher writes, “Our ultimate goal is to set priorities and establish strategies and actions to reduce overweight and obesity.”

It’s not as though people haven’t heard that being fat might be unhealthy. Books, websites, and television and radio commercials bombard us with that message and the various ways to shed pounds. If anything, people worry too much about their weight. Few have gone broke promoting a fad diet.

That great debunker of junk science, Steven Malloy, writes that the government’s statistics on the prevalence of fat people are based on “suspect research,” such as unverified telephone surveys and “an arbitrary definition of ‘overweight’ based on ‘body mass index.’” Malloy adds that the government’s estimate of 300,000 deaths a year in the battle of the bulge is “unadulterated junk science.” The New England Journal of Medicine also finds the data unreliable, Malloy says. He also criticizes Satcher’s report because it ignores important differences between being overweight and being obese. Obesity is unhealthy, he says, “but the evidence supposedly linking mild-to-moderate overweight with increased health problems is murky, based only on flaky statistics.” Malloy even debunks the alleged relationship between childhood and adult weight problems: the evidence is lacking.

But forget all that. Even if all the medical alarmism is justified, why is it any of the government’s business? Conceded, that question sounds outlandish these days, accustomed as we are to believing that everything is the government’s business. But once we remind ourselves that, as George Washington is reputed to have said, “government is not reason; it is not eloquence. It is force,” we should be wary of its grand scheme to slim us down. That scheme consists of a long “menu” of “activities and interventions in five key settings: families and communities, schools, health care, media and communications, and worksites.” In other words, we are to have more intrusion from Washington, D.C., in everything from our families and communities to our worksites in order to get us to lose weight. Where in the Constitution is the central government delegated the power to do this?

The menu of activities contains some ominous items. For example:

“Empower families to manage weight and health through skill building in parenting, meal planning, and behavioral management.”

“Educate parents about the need to serve as good role models by practicing healthy eating habits and engaging in regular physical activity in order to instill lifelong healthy habits in their children.”

“Establish worksite exercise facilities or create incentives for employees to join local fitness centers.”

“Establish a dialogue to consider classifying obesity as a disease category for reimbursement coding.”

And on and on. It is obvious that this plan will take the nanny state’s hectoring to new heights.

It’s easy to make fun of the Jack LaLane model of government, but there is a serious side to this. As seen in the last item quoted, the Satcher plan is another step in the medicalization of normal problems of living, which Thomas Szasz has long cautioned against. Overeating is not a disease; it’s a choice. Notice the reference to “reimbursement coding.” That’s a tip-off that this is about getting someone else to pay for weight-loss services through health insurance. It’s finance, not medicine; medicine is only debased in the process.a

Finally, an unpleasant aroma arises from the government’s interest in our health. It suggests that dietary decisions are not our own business because we are government property. Satcher’s plans says, “The Nation must take action to assist Americans in balancing healthful eating with regular physical activity.” But what is the Nation if it is not Americans? The reification of the Nation by the minister of physical and mental hygiene should concern anyone who values his freedom.

It was no coincidence that the fascists, Nazis, and communists all saw maintenance of the people’s health as an essential duty of the totalitarian state.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.