14 April 2011

Better Health Through Coercion

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Mark Bittman attempts to show how $1 trillion might be saved by the federal government by "preventing disease instead of treating it."  He cites alarming statistics about how many Americans have largely preventable health issues, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.  He then relates each of these to dollars spent - "more than one seventh of our GDP" - to cure them.  His point is that it would cost far less if preventative measures were pursued, like improving diet and increasing exercise at an individual level.  A valid point, indeed, especially as it appears to be a result of individual choice and improvement; the money saved is the result of changes by individuals.

However, that is not the case.  In Mr. Bittman's view, the individual is the thing to be managed, the cog to be turned by coercive forces so as to benefit the whole, and the whole will pay in the form of higher taxes so that the individual can be coerced.

The first indication that Mr. Bittman prefers, whether he recognizes it or not, coercive methods to pursue better, healthier eating occurs when he claims that money can be saved "if an alliance of insurers, government, individuals - maybe even Big Food, if it's pushed  hard enough - moves us toward better eating."  First there is the obvious reference to pushing Big Food to do what Mr. Bittman surely feels it ought to do, the connotation that any "Big" industry not only needs coercion but deserves it as well.  No, the more subtle portion of his statement is also more telling of just how far he feels the state should go toward enforcing better health habits.  Mr. Bittman wants government and other entities to "move us" to do what is deemed to be the right thing.  He does not use a more gentle term, like entice or encourage.   The use of "move" implies actions upon the individual; the individual needs to be moved.  So Mr. Bittman really means that his "alliance  of insurers, government, [and] individuals" (individuals who we may assume include folks like him) must coerce the Big Individual into doing the right thing, that is eating as the "alliance" sees fit.  No individual liberty or personal accountability to be found there.

But this coercion doesn't come on the cheap.  That, however, is not an issue when the coercive power of government is brought to bear.  Mr. Bittman quite simply states that the "investment" - forcing people to ear healthy diets - is one for which "you must spend money to make or save money.  (Yes, taxes will go up, but whose taxes?)"  When only about half of American households don't pay federal income taxes, it's an easy bet that only half of the population will pay into this "investment" in coercive behavior.  Big Food and Big Whateverelse will also get the bill.  But it's an "investment" in people's health that will save money - so what's the worry?

In order to get away from the question of actually paying for coercing individuals into taking proper care of themselves, Mr. Bittman uses a now-common false comparison which is meant to evoke both nostalgia and a sense of self-loathing.  He claims, "if we can put a man on the moon, we can create an environment in which an apple is a better and more accessible choice than a Pop-Tart."  Of course, the Apollo Project has absolutely nothing to do with proper diet and exercise, but that's of no consequence for Mr. Bittman.  What is more important for the reader is the level of stupidity he expects of you.  How does he figure that apples are rare finds in supermarkets?  Does he think that his readers, or Americans in general, do their grocery shopping primarily or exclusively at locations which cater in boxed food that is grabbed on the go, like gas stations?  What's more is that he thinks there is a need to "create an environment in which an apple is a better...choice" than a boxed, sugary pastry.  Mr. Bittman insults everyone's intelligence if he really thinks that the average human being needs to be told that an apple is a better bit of food than a frosted pastry.  Yet, he would use the coercive force of government to drive this and other healthy points home.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and Mr. Bittman has good intentions.  No decent human being would want others to suffer from diabetes or heart disease.  But where Mr. Bittman makes his downward turn is in his belief that the answer rests in government "investment" in coercing individuals to practice healthier living.

What I believe Mr. Bittman either refuses or is unable (due to his statist leaning) to recognize is that the coercive power of government has limitations - indeed, many folks may argue that it can do no social good.   The taking from some in order to "help" others who are somehow unwilling to help themselves is a path of folly.  For the vast majority of people, a decent diet and a modicum of exercise are well within their grasp.  What must not be allowed into the conversation are excuses which are groundless - No one told me that honey bun was bad for me; I live just down the street from a fast food joint and I'm "addicted" - I'm too tired / sore / fat / unmotivated to exercise.  If individuals are relieved of the responsibility for their own health - their own care and feeding - then they will have truly become children of the state.  And we will all pay the price, higher taxes being most certainly the least consequential.  For a society in which individuals who are supposed to be adults turn to the government for direction on what to eat is a society which has no soul, no will, and no hope.

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