â€œPerhaps youâ€™ve noticed the trend among certain people these days,â€ wrote Neil Genzlinger in The New York Times the other day, â€œto decide that certain other people are not living acceptable lives and must be reformed.â€
Yes. There certainly is a lot of that going around.
You can see it in the comments from Michele Bachmannâ€™s husband, Marcusâ€"who says homosexuals are â€œbarbariansâ€ who need to be â€œeducatedâ€ and â€œdisciplined.â€ The Bachmanns own a clinic that tries to make homosexuals go straightâ€"a procedure as likely to succeed as trying to make a straight man gay.
You can see the trend in Arizona, Alabama, and other states that have imposed stiff penalties for employers who choose to hire illegal immigrantsâ€"i.e., individuals who moved to the U.S. without a government permission slip.
You can see it across the country in the attempts by Christian parents to have Harry Potter books removed from school libraries, to keep children from reading stories that supposedly promote witchcraft and the occult.
And when you finished reading Genzlingerâ€™s column of page A16 in last Sundayâ€™s Times, you also could see the trend he wrote about just a few pages further inâ€"on the front of the Timesâ€™ Sunday Review section. â€œWhat will it take,â€ asked the paperâ€™s Mark Bittman, â€œto get Americans to change our eating habits?â€
This is a subject of great concern to progressives today. Many of them are deeply distressed thatâ€"despite incessant lecturing on the subjectâ€"too many of their fellow citizens continue to eat what they like, rather than what progressives think they should eat.
Bittmanâ€™s answer to this dilemma is to tax â€œbad foodâ€ and subsidize â€œgood food.â€ He is far from alone. But this answer to the problem of too much food freedom rests on two major factual errors and a moral grotesquerie. The first factual error is the belief that healthful foods cost too much. Nonsense: For the price of a single fast-food combo meal you can buy a weekâ€™s worth of fruits and vegetables.
The second error is Bittmanâ€™s claim that â€œefforts to shift the national diet have failed, because education alone is no match for marketing dollars that push the very foods that are the worst for us.â€ Donald Boudreaux, professor of economics at George Mason University in Northern Virginia, makes quick work of this foolishnessâ€"in a response to a different pieceâ€"on his blog, CafÃ© Hayek.
â€œWhy,â€ he asks, â€œdoesnâ€™t McDonaldâ€™s simply serve raw celery? Celery being much less costly for McDonaldâ€™s to buy than ground beef and chicken patties, a raw-celery-only menu at McDonaldâ€™s would slash that companyâ€™s costs. And with its nefarious facility at using â€˜advertising and marketingâ€™ to hypnotize consumers into buying whatever it peddles (even â€˜nasty killer foodsâ€™!), that fast-food behemoth will keep consumers spending as much on McCelery stalks as consumers now spend on Happy Meals and Egg McMuffins. McDonaldâ€™s profits will zoom upward!â€ (The answer is obvious: Consumers have the last word.)
The moral grotesquerie comes later in the piece, when Bittman offers the rationale for his scheme: Some might â€œargue that their right to eat whatever they wanted was being breached,â€ he concedes, â€œbut public health is the role of the government, and our diet is right up there with any other public responsibility you can name, from water treatment to mass transit.â€ Besides, â€œhealth-related obesity costs are projected to reach $344 billion by 2018â€"with roughly 60 percent of that cost borne by the federal government.â€ In short, the government should dictate what you eat for the sake of the collective good.
Bittman used to write about recipes, so perhaps he does not know of Kantâ€™s categorial imperative, which instructs us to treat people as ends in themselvesâ€"not as mere means to an end. Using government coercion to dictate other peopleâ€™s food choices in order to save money on government programs is a blinding violation of that moral precept.
Nevertheless, Bittman says it is â€œfunâ€"inspiring, evenâ€ to think about the various ways government could order people about: â€œWeâ€ could convert soda machines to â€œmachines that dispense grapes and carrots.â€ â€œWeâ€ could sell vegetables, grains, legumes, and fruit â€œcheapâ€"letâ€™s say for 50 cents a poundâ€"and almost everywhere: drugstores, street corners, convenience stores, bodegas. . . â€
Just one problem: â€œWeâ€ do not own the drug stores or bodegasâ€"so we have no right to dictate what they stock.
The progressive campaign against obesity relies on the assumption that the individual no longer owns his or her bodyâ€"rather, society as a whole does. This has some profound implications for, say, abortion. And Bittmanâ€™s contribution to that campaign should serve as a warning: Anyone who thinks it would be â€œfunâ€ to use government power to dictate everyone elseâ€™s choicesâ€"from sex partner to dinner menuâ€"should not be allowed anywhere near it.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.