Commentary Magazine


Topic: nutrition

Obamacare’s Stepchildren: The Food Police

The debate about Obamacare and the way the government is using it to mandate that institutions pay for services they oppose such as contraception has brought the whole question of intrusive federal regulation back into the public eye. But those who believe this is something that will be limited to health care are probably deceiving themselves. The impulse to tell people how they should live and what they should do is implicit in the ideology that gave birth to Obamacare. If some influential people have their way, Washington’s power to impose its will may be extended into other spheres that were heretofore considered so far out of the government’s purview as to have been considered laughable. But as New York Times Magazine food columnist Mark Bittman wrote yesterday, the day may be fast approaching when government bureaucrats will be telling some, if not all citizens, what foods they may or may not eat.

Bittman picks up on the attempt by a conservative Republican in the Florida legislature to pass a bill that would prevent recipients of food stamps from spending their chits on junk food like candy, chips or soda. The willingness of a right-winger to join the food police encourages Bittman to think the time will not be long before sugar is regulated the way the production and marketing of alcohol and tobacco are controlled by the government. While Bittman’s nutritional advice about the dangers of over-consumption of products drenched in sugar and corn syrup is well taken, the notion that such choices will be taken out of the hands of consumers ought to frighten anyone who values individual freedom and understands the perils of a nanny state. Some may scoff at this possibility, but the Obamacare precedent and the power the president’s signature program will give the government may change everything in the future. Bittman’s argument that the costs of health care will make such government micro-managing of our lives inevitable may prove prophetic if Obamacare is not repealed next year.

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The debate about Obamacare and the way the government is using it to mandate that institutions pay for services they oppose such as contraception has brought the whole question of intrusive federal regulation back into the public eye. But those who believe this is something that will be limited to health care are probably deceiving themselves. The impulse to tell people how they should live and what they should do is implicit in the ideology that gave birth to Obamacare. If some influential people have their way, Washington’s power to impose its will may be extended into other spheres that were heretofore considered so far out of the government’s purview as to have been considered laughable. But as New York Times Magazine food columnist Mark Bittman wrote yesterday, the day may be fast approaching when government bureaucrats will be telling some, if not all citizens, what foods they may or may not eat.

Bittman picks up on the attempt by a conservative Republican in the Florida legislature to pass a bill that would prevent recipients of food stamps from spending their chits on junk food like candy, chips or soda. The willingness of a right-winger to join the food police encourages Bittman to think the time will not be long before sugar is regulated the way the production and marketing of alcohol and tobacco are controlled by the government. While Bittman’s nutritional advice about the dangers of over-consumption of products drenched in sugar and corn syrup is well taken, the notion that such choices will be taken out of the hands of consumers ought to frighten anyone who values individual freedom and understands the perils of a nanny state. Some may scoff at this possibility, but the Obamacare precedent and the power the president’s signature program will give the government may change everything in the future. Bittman’s argument that the costs of health care will make such government micro-managing of our lives inevitable may prove prophetic if Obamacare is not repealed next year.

Bittman is right to say obesity has become a major national health problem. Nor would I dispute his arguments that American nutritional habits are doing us and the country no good. But the notion that this is reason enough to give the government the power to prevent people from buying the food they wish to eat is a fundamental assault on individual liberty.

Food stamp recipients are vulnerable to such regulation because their poverty and dependence renders them helpless against such intrusions. If they are taking our money, some people reason, then we should be able to tell them what to do, especially if it is obviously for their own good. But this sort of utilitarian argument has no limits. If the national exchequer is burdened by the costs of caring for those who suffer from obesity, then we can just as easily be told that sugar or any other substance selected by the food police (Bittman prefers the term “vigilantes”) can be regulated or banned for everyone, not just those who rely on government handouts.

The ideological underpinning of this thinking can be found in Bittman’s assertion that it is the government’s job to take care of itself. If, as he believes, the government is failing to sufficiently protect us from ourselves, then it is time for enlightened souls to step in and force it to take control. However well-intentioned Bittman’s prescription for the national diet may be, government involvement on the scale that he is discussing is the epitome of the political trend that Jonah Goldberg aptly styled Liberal Fascism.

One might assume the food industry will fight this expansion of government control tooth and nail. But the example of Obamacare demonstrates all too well how businesses can be co-opted into acquiescing to a takeover by the federal leviathan. Unless Obamacare is stopped next year by a new president and Congress, we may well eventually find out just how far the reach of an empowered government can go.

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