Have Another Twinkie, America

HealthDay reports that "[o]besity cost the United States about $75 billion in 2003, and taxpayers footed about half the bill through Medicare and Medicaid programs." This is a huge sum of money, but I will not argue about the validity of the figure, not being familiar with the details of the study or with the procedures used to estimate it. What I take issue with is the statement by the lead author of the study:

"This paper shows that obesity is a financial problem," Finkelstein says. "The government bears the burden so clearly they have a right -- or certainly a cause -- for trying to reduce the prevalence and cost of obesity especially among their populations."

In a way, he's right, and that underscores a fundamental problem with public health care. But in a way, he's totally wrong, and that underscores a fundamental problem with political solutions to social problems.

When a taxpayer is footing the bill, he has every right to expect his money not to be wasted. The (indirect) recipient of the taxes, the person treated for obesity-related or other preventable medical conditions (which are not all "diseases" as some would have you believe), by his own neglect causes more of the taxpayer's wealth to be forcibly extracted from him.

We've come to government rule No. 1: the State excels at making problems, often by attempting to make solutions. In "solving" the public health care "problem" by establishing a tax-funded medical program, it has made everyone else's health decisions every individual taxpayer's business. In this way the man who just doesn't feel like jogging is now your enemy, because he is eating up your wealth. This is not the way things should be.

This is where the author and his ilk enter with all kinds of solutions: increased food labeling, banning or punitively taxing "bad" foods, restricting sales of said "bad" foods, etc. The government must act. The experts have spoken; the government must now follow their sage advice. Disregarding Hayek's admonitions completely, they often do. But isn't that what got us into the public health care mess, among others, in the first place? Do we really want more? (I say "Hell no!")

To maintain the ideology behind the present system would naturally lead to ridiculous regulation of food and individual behavior. If you are indeed your brother's keeper, as evidenced by your picking up his health care tab, you should also be able to restrict his choices for his own good, via the State.

The other ideology has the benefit of being the moral one, in that no wealth is forcibly extracted from some to be spent on others, and the practical one, in that the only way to get someone to value something is to make him pay for it. This ideology holds that you are responsible for your own upkeep. If you have health problems through your own inaction, don't make someone else pay for it. And for the love of all that's good, don't make an entire system out of robbing Peter to pay Paul. If it's already there, dismantle it. If someone attempts to bring it back, deny him.

I don't have a fancy Marxist PhD, policymakers, to add weight to my statements, but perhaps you'd be so kind as to think about them.

The State got us into this mess. More State action is more mess. Laissez-nous faire!

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Situations like this one are

Situations like this one are an economist's nightmare: instead of forcing private individuals to internalize their externalities like a proper state should (proper in the eye's of a mainstream economist, mind you), the state is instead creating externalities where none existed previously.

People are fat due to

People are fat due to previous interventions by government issuing guidelines about dietary fat. This resulted in a massive increase in the consumption of starches, which make people fat. There are ideological objections to a matronizing role for the state but even if you don't agree with the ideology a careful analysis of the quality of interventions is strong argument against such behavior.