John Banzhaf, the G.W. law professor who thinks there's no problem that can't be solved through litigation, is in a bit of a quandary. His main interest nowadays is in suing our way to a thinner America. Toward that end, he also argues that life and health insurers should be free to discriminate based on weight, charging their tubbier customers more because they have higher disease risks. This is one of the few areas where he and I agree, but it doesn't sit too well with his opposition to other forms of discrimination, such as charging women more for haircuts than men or offering them free or discounted drinks on "Ladies' Night." You can argue that sex, unlike weight, is an innate, immutable characteristic. But there's an important genetic component to obesity too, and some people may argue that the metabolisms they were born with make it well-nigh impossible for them to be thin.
The tension between Banzhaf's commitment to nondiscrimination and his crusade against fat comes through clearly as he considers what he describes as an increasingly common practice of charging fat people more for dry cleaning. You may recall that Banzhaf was adamantly opposed to such price discrimination based on sex, although dry cleaners argued that women's clothes were harder to handle for various reasons (they didn't fit the standard presses, they often had pleats and decorative buttons, etc.). But in the case of fat people, he seems more sympathetic to the dry cleaners.
"Unlike discrimination based upon gender, race, or national origin, discrimination against fat people generally isn't illegal," Banzhaf writes in a recent press release. "Some dry cleaners who charge more to clean large size dresses argue that it costs them more because of the greater amount of fabric which has to be treated….Whether or not special accommodations have to be made for obese people as we do for the blind or people in wheelchairs, whether it's fair and legal to charge the obese more when it is warranted by additional costs, and in general whether obesity is more like smoking or like gender, are important emerging questions."