If obesity is a disease, then in the West it is an epidemic. Some 40 percent of Americans and 30 percent of adults in the UK are obese. The familiar litany of conditions associated with being overweight includes heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure. The Royal College of Physicians has asked that obesity be labeled a disease, rather than a behavioral choice because, as RCP President Andrew Goddard said, such a label “reduces the stigma of having obesity.” Critics respond that, while some people may have a genetic predisposition to retain weight, obesity is caused by consuming more calories than we burn; consuming fewer calories of any kind, even exclusively at McDonald’s, will lead to weight loss.
To blame the free market for gluttony, one of the deadly sins, would undermine its moral legitimacy. But these are arguments are a lot to swallow.
Others have tried to blame spreading waistlines on market expansion. Jonathan C. Wells wrote in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Human Biology that the key to understanding obesity is an “obesogenic niche” caused by the “unifying logic of capitalism.” Historically, “capitalism contributed to the under-nutrition of many populations through demand for cheap labor.” Yet as global financial needs “switched to consumption, capitalism has increasingly driven consumer behavior inducing widespread over-nutrition.”
Furthermore, the free market actually restricts our choices, “both at the behavioral level, through advertising, price manipulations and restriction of choice, and at the physiological level through the enhancement of addictive properties of foods” (namely, the addition of sugar and fat).
If the scientific justification seems novel, the underlying ideas are not. “An expanding Late Capitalist world requires that no one ever be fully satisfied,” wrote Hillel Schwartz in his 1986 book Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies, and Fat. Hence, “fat people” are “victims of the double binds of capitalism, which are sexist, racist and class-biased.”
These arguments have filtered down into popular websites, sometimes questioning the ethics of the economic system itself. “If capitalism is a virtue, fat people are saintly,” wrote Tina Dupuy at The Huffington Post.
To blame the free market for gluttony, one of the deadly sins, would undermine its moral legitimacy. But these arguments are a lot to swallow.
Experts believe the impetus to overeat comes from ancient, primal cravings dating back to our days as hunter-gatherers. It made sense for a species uncertain of where it would find its next meal to store as many calories as possible. Happily, those conditions no longer hold, but our psychological programming has never adapted.
Free enterprise has contributed to obesity only insofar as it has produced such abundance as to nearly vanquish malnutrition. “The biggest unreported story in the past three quarters of a century,” said Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, is the “increase in availability of food for the common person.” The average food supply per person, per day, has risen by 600 calories since 1961. Global dietary supply adequacy has risen in an almost unbroken climb for two decades. Only collectivist governments and war-torn regions resist this global progress. For instance, the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds in a single year in what commentators have dubbed “the Maduro diet.”
The world’s unprecedented food supply may coexist uneasily with our caveman-era cravings. But to facetiously blame their existence on capitalism serves only to exacerbate what Theodore Dalrymple called “dishonest fatalism” – the mindset that blames self-destructive choices on external factors beyond our control – and to invent new bogeymen for a crusading activist government.
It also overlooks the ways government interventionism has led to perverse incentives. A national health care system like the NHS discourages personal responsibility by externalizing the costs of health conditions associated with obesity. Taxpayers, rather than individuals making regrettable dietary choices, foot the bill in a system that is “free at the point of delivery.”
Without a way to treat good actors differently from bad actors – by forcing the latter to bear the economic, as well as physical, costs of their decisions – such nations turn to paternalistic government solutions. Public health activists lobby for new taxes on soda, sugary desserts, even red meat. But such blunt instruments cannot discriminate between the noble poor seeking a rare treat and the glutton and end up merely punishing the less prosperous.
Some believe even these nanny state measures do not go far enough. “Above all, we have to recognise that this danger has social roots which require social responses, the deeply held belief of social democrats and socialists for generations,” wrote Will Hutton in a Guardian article titled “Fat is a Capitalist Issue.”
Ultimately, obesity must be fought by eliminating the vice of gluttony, a passion that cannot be removed by the tax code. But the ancients offered a solution. St. John Cassian wrote that “we must trample under foot gluttonous desires … not only by fasting,” but by cultivating such a love of spiritual things that the believer sees eating “not so much a concession to pleasure, as a burden.”
Until such time as that occurs, the public sphere can encourage people to accept personal responsibility for, and bear the consequences of, their health and lifestyle decisions. “Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions and will receive praise or blame for them,” wrote F.A. Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty. “Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.”
(Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo by senior airman Jarrod Grammel. This photo has been cropped. Public domain.)