“Until the spread of fast-food restaurants is restricted, we will never beat obesity”: It’s the quote of the week, the month, the year. Made over the weekend by a prominent anti-obesity activist in the UK, this remark addresses the government’s expected strategy to combat Britons’ bulging bellies. According to The Times of London, a potential fast food ban around schools, parks, and nurseries is one component of a new social engineering campaign.
The Times reported that the ban “comes as evidence shows that fast-food restaurants are thriving despite campaigns to promote healthy eating.” In other words, since individuals won’t make the “right” choice, the government will make it for them.
This Big Brother phenomenon is taking place stateside too. On Sunday, columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the growing belief that politicians can and should act as parents. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg served as a prime example:
In 2006 alone, New York City banned — or attempted to ban — pit bulls; trans fats; aluminum baseball bats; the purchase of tobacco by 18- to 20-year-olds; foie gras; pedicabs in parks; new fast-food restaurants (but only in poor neighborhoods); lobbyists from the floor of council chambers; vehicles in Central and Prospect parks; cellphones in upscale restaurants; the sale of pork products made in a processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C.; mail-order pharmaceutical plans; candy-flavored cigarettes; the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus; and Wal-Mart.
Though these intrusive policies are effective at building political capital, the majority of scientific evidence and personal experience suggests that this slap-the-hand-that-feeds-you approach can achieve little in the way of behavioral change. However, the absence of public change in these for-your-own-good policies is much less worrisome than their toll on our individual liberties. In Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville warned that we should not take these little intrusions lightly:
It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my own part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones.
The real debate is not about fast food, or nutrition, or even public health. This is an ideological battle between people who think these options should be available to anyone who wants them, and those who think we shouldn’t have the choice. Much of the anti-obesity movement aims to regulate and restrict our ability to eat a cheeseburger—assuming Americans are too stupid to make our own food decisions. And if we’re truly that inept, we’ve got much bigger problems than our love-handles.