Who But a Corporate Apologist Would Argue That the Food You Choose to Eat Is a Personal Matter?


On Sunday the Hartford Courant published an op-ed piece in which Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, explains why the size of your butt is the government's business. To his credit, after years of arguing with me and other libertarians, Brownell finally acknowledges a difference between protecting people from risks imposed on them by others, such as polluters and carriers of deadly pathogens, and protecting people from risks they voluntarily assume "in matters of individual behavior such as smoking, drinking alcohol and eating." Unfortunately, he seems to think the difference is that in the latter case "public health" crusaders like him face opposition from "business interests."

A moment's thought (which Brownell evidently could not spare) shows this distinction makes no sense. Surely operators of smoke-belching power plants and purveyors of dangerous quack remedies count as "business interests." They are nevertheless encompassed by a definition of public health that focuses on external threats.

But Brownell is not interested in analysis so much as ad hominem distractions. He wants to imply that the only opposition to his harebrained schemes for centrally planning food prices, censoring unhelpful speech, and redesigning the world to encourage proper eating habits comes from evil corporations threatened by these obviously necessary and long overdue measures. He laments that "public health authorities urging government involvement in nutrition face intense lobbying from the food companies who claim that government should stay out of people's lives, that individual liberties are at risk, and that failing personal responsibility is the key problem." After all, who but a corporate lobbyist would ever imagine that government efforts to control what we eat impinge upon individual liberties, or that gluttony and sloth have anything to do with individual responsibility? "This debate about personal responsibility and government action is about money," Brownell declares, and he has the proof:

Whether someone exercises is as personal a decision as choosing what to eat. But the food industry, and those who apologize for it by arguing that government should stay out of food decisions, are all for government involvement in physical activity.

Why? No industry stands in the way and the food industry benefits by diverting attention from food to exercise. But the instant government discusses policies that would reduce consumption of things such as junk food and soda, there is all-out combat and record levels of lobbying.

I can't speak for the food industry (although Brownell evidently thinks I do), but I am not "all for government involvement in physical activity." I would object if the government tried to mandate morning calisthenics or, to take an example closer to Brownell's actual proposals, started imposing heavy taxes on products associated with a sedentary lifestyle (cars, TVs, video games, couches) while subsidizing products associated with exercise (bicycles, running shoes, pogo sticks). Nor do I think the government should fight obesity by redesigning cities to encourage walking and biking instead of driving.

I could respond to Brownell's charge of bad faith by noting all the financial interests that benefit from the War on Fat: pharmaceutical companies, diet book publishers, public health bureaucracies, obesity researchers, etc. The research funding and professional success of obesity experts like Brownell depend on alarming people about the threat posed by weighing too much—which may explain why he continues to assert that "today's children could be the first generation in the nation's history to live shorter lives than their parents did," even though the CDC's life expectancy numbers flatly contradict that claim. But you know what? I don't think Brownell is in it for the money. He strikes me as a perfectly sincere public health paternalist who genuinely believes he is fighting to make the world a better place and genuinely doubts that any of his opponents have a similar motivation. That's what makes him scary.