Eating: It’s Not Your Fault

Giving a column to a think tank is a lot like giving car keys to a 14-year-old boy: You know it’s going to end badly. Nevertheless, yesterday WashingtonPost.com handed over a goodly amount of column space to RAND Corporation scholar Deborah Cohen, who wrote on the topic of regulating away obesity, with predictable results. (For an earlier exposé of Cohen’s paternalist streak, click here.) Cohen’s basic argument is this: We live in an America where unhealthy foods are so irresistible that the only way to fight obesity is to regulate food choices. Perhaps it’s unsurprising from someone whose book runs down the entire food cop wish list — fat taxes, supersizing bans, and even the use of zoning laws to curtail politically unpopular restaurants — but Cohen premises her argument on this assumption: “Food marketing efforts are the modern Sirens, leading us inexorably to chronic diseases and sometimes to early deaths.” Since we use regulation to do things like keep air clean, Cohen argues, what could be more natural than to use the law to fight obesity? The major difference, of course, is that individuals tend not to have direct control over the quality of the air they inhale. The number of burgers someone inhales, on the other hand, is most certainly within his direct control. Cohen justifies her top-down approach to obesity prevention by asserting that “people are not the problem.” She’s wrong. People are the problem — and the solution. At the end of the day, what someone eats is an individual decision, no matter how his desires may be encouraged by marketing or discouraged by scaremongering. Wanting to do something isn’t the same as doing it, and obesity activists help no one by pretending free will doesn’t exist.

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