Anti-food campaigners like Kelly Brownell, godfather of punitive taxes on food, have a distinctly American problem in ramming through restrictions on consumer choice. Brownell and one of his Rudd Center colleagues wrote an article in 2007 in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics that laid the blame for activists’ failure to win battles against foods on Americans’ sense of individualism.
According to Brownell’s story, individualism leads to people laying responsibility for obesity on individuals, which is — so he says — bad. (It is also common sense: Nobody’s forcing food or drinks down anybody’s throat, after all.) Americans have had a fondness for individualism since before the United States was a country, and prohibition, our best-known “Noble Experiment” in large-scale paternalism, was a disaster. So how then does Brownell break through and tax and ban a myriad of foodstuffs that Americans like?
The answer is clear: Make adult Americans into victims. We saw the beginnings of this maneuver when the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its plan for wide-scale social reengineering of American life. Back then, a Reuters columnist reflected on a poll showing that less than 20 percent of Americans blamed the fast food and grocery industries for obesity by saying the poll “captures some of the prejudicial attitudes.” We also see it in the effort to classify Americans as hopeless junkies, “addicted” to food.
Now, the head of the American Psychological Association (which recently gave Brownell an award) has joined the bandwagon. Apparently, if you believe that people have the right and responsibility to eat and exercise prudently, you’re “blaming the victim.”
There are problems with this push to classify all dissent from the activist orthodoxy as out of bounds. Indeed, classifying people as victims might very well make things even worse. One doctor laid out the problems with this “McVictim Syndrome” two years ago:
Governments can’t micromanage your waistline for you. Even if governments could magically walk you to work, ban food advertising, regulate sugar out of food and suck those fat particles out of the air, in a free society you would still have the power to drive to the nearest restaurant, shake your salt shaker and order a second piece of pie.
So welcome to C.S. Lewis’s dystopia. We’ve recalled before the author’s maxim that “a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive,” but there is a second half to that thought. Lewis argues, “To be ‘cured’ against one’s will […] is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.” With all due respect to those who wrongfully think we blame obese people for their problems, we’d kindly point out that they are infantilizing American adults. (They probably won’t take offense to that, as some admit that’s the point.)
America has a choice. We can restore, promote, and exercise personal responsibility, or we can lose our free society. Do forgive us for defending the free society.