Publisher's note: This article appeared on John Hood's daily column in the Carolina Journal, which, because of Author / Publisher Hood, is linked to the John Locke Foundation.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.
RALEIGH Have you been eating right? Getting enough exercise? How far away are you from your ideal weight?
You may think that I have no business asking you such personal questions, but I beg to differ. Privacy is no longer a legitimate excuse. And you can blame the so-called "progressive" legislation of the 1960s that forces me potentially to pay for your health-care costs.
According to a study a few years back by researchers at the North Carolina-based RTI International and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American taxpayers were compelled to fork over $39 billion a year, or about $175 per person, to finance treatment for obesity-related illnesses through Medicare and Medicaid. This startling high number was even more startling when compared against the total estimated cost to treat obesity each year: $75 billion. In other words, most of the medical costs associated with people eating too much, exercising too little, or failing to adjust their lifestyle sufficiently to deal with genetic predispositions are borne not by the patients or their families but by taxpaying bystanders.
These facts lead to a disquieting conclusion: what you do in the privacy of your own home regarding diet and exercise is now very much my business, as my habits are now your business.
Sure, the officials who say these research findings prove the need for "public investment" in anti-obesity programs make the whole endeavor seem reasonable, compassionate, and noble. But that doesn't change the fact that in a supposedly free society, there is now a coherent if terrifying rationale for coercive government to "help" you count your calories and burn your carbs.
Moreover, since we all know that it is rather difficult to give up the fatty foods we enjoy and make ourselves spin the treadmill for half an hour after a hard day's work, couldn't it logically be said that obesity is the result of addictive behaviors? Don't nefarious fast-food corporations manipulate us through deceptive advertising and predatory pricing to eat too much of the wrong things, just so they can reap their ill-gotten profits?
It's not too far a journey from Big Tobacco to Big Mac. There are already serious proposals to impose excise taxes on fatty foods, just as governments do on cigarettes and alcohol. There are plaintiffs already beginning an initial round of lawsuits against food companies to recover health costs from obesity, and it's not too much of a stretch to imagine state governments following suit at some point to recover Medicaid and other public health expenses.
What's dangerous is not that these attempts are being or will likely be made, but that they are not all wholly unreasonable. If obesity isn't just a problem for the obese but for the entire society, made so by government programs that socialize risk and reduce incentives to act wisely, taxpayers cannot fail to have some legitimate say in trying to reduce their financial risk. It would be no different if government compelled homeowners to purchase insurance and then compelled insurers to offer coverage even to already burning houses. And advocates of today's government health programs can't get away with insisting only that they favor information and public education. What if a Medicaid patient or elderly retiree refuses to take your sound advice? Given the socialization of health care, what right do they have to refuse and thus impose a cost on everyone else?
There are plenty of moral reasons to oppose the continued growth of intrusive government. Taxation for extra-constitutional government is theft. And making all sort of tax-financed goodies available to the right special interest at the right time is an invitation to bribery and fraud.
But add this one to the list: individual freedom will be imperiled over time in rough proportion to the degree of individual dependency on the state. Or, as I tell my kids as they plaintively beg me to turn into a passing hamburger joint on the way to a restaurant with more healthful choices: he who owns the car gets to decide which way it goes.