TCS Daily

Health Fascism

By Sean Gabb - June 2, 2004 12:00 AM

The UK's parliamentary Health Select Committee in the House of Commons has now reported on obesity. As expected, the report is a health fascist power grab. It is an impressive mix of junk statistics, unsubstantiated claims, generalizations from single instances, tear-jerking pleas to "save the kiddies", claims on our pockets and personal freedoms, and demands for jobs and status for the usual class of politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, educators, and politically correct clients in corporate big business. The recommendations include advertising bans, compulsory exercise for schoolchildren, and discouragement of fatty food.

Having given them in general, let me proceed to the specific objections to this report.

To begin, food companies should not be blamed if their customers grow fat. People should be free to do as they please. The only limitations on this freedom should be to punish and deter fraud and coercion against others, and to ensure the continued existence of the community as a whole -- this last to be interpreted very narrowly. Any restraint on freedom is illegitimate that cannot be plainly justified on these grounds.

Protecting people from themselves is an illegitimate function. Freedom includes the right to make serious or even fatal mistakes. People should be free to drink and smoke and take other recreational drugs, and to take part in dangerous sports, and to join religious movements that require any extremes of self harm. And they should be free to eat as they please, no matter how unhealthy their food or quantity of food eaten may be supposed to be.

There is a difference where children are concerned. They cannot be presumed responsible in the same way as adults. But this is no reason for the state to interfere in raising them except in case of gross neglect. It ought generally be the duty of parents to look after children. They will usually do a better job than some distant bureaucracy. Whatever the experts say, nutrition is not an exact science. What is good for one person may not be good for another. The proposals for compulsory exercise and cookery lessons at school cannot be tailored to the individual needs of every child.

This assumes that state schools can effectively insist on or teach anything. These notoriously do a bad job at teaching their inmates to read and write. Adding more subjects to the curriculum does not mean they will be taught. Where health and education are concerned, governments are better at claiming abilities than at showing them.

But grant the authorities do know better what is good for children, and are able to enforce their will. This is true in some cases. There are bad parents, and there is always some delivery of basic services that is not wholly ludicrous. Even then, intervention of the sort proposed should be resisted. Perhaps, in certain areas, the government is better able to choose for us than we are ourselves. But unless its effects are likely to be catastrophic, the public good is better served by leaving us alone. Whenever the government does something for us, it takes away from our own ability to do that for ourselves. This diminishes us as human beings. Better, I suggest, a people who often eat and drink too much, and who on average die a few years before they might, than a people deprived of autonomy and shepherded into a few extra years of intellectual and moral passivity.

The problem is that these objections will not be considered in the present moral climate. Where children are concerned, the settled presumption is that no interference with civil rights or the private rights of parents is inappropriate. The idea that the raising of children is a matter wholly for parents -- and that interference is only justified to stop or punish violence or gross deception -- is not so much rejected by most people in this country as never considered. It is taken as common sense that the government is really responsible for the raising of children, and that parents are only allowed a shadow of their former authority in those matters where immediate and local decisions need to be made. Any argument here is over the precise extent of the principle, but not over the principle itself.

In the technical sense, this report is a classic case study in health fascism. With its gathering up and orderly statement of themes, nothing like this has happened before. But it was to be expected. Like a cat poking at a half dead mouse, the health fascists have grown bored with tobacco and alcohol and have been looking for a new cause. What better than obesity? What better than childhood obesity? The answer, I suppose, is passive childhood obesity. Now there is a set of claims worth waiting for.

Dr. Sean Gabb is editor of the journal of the Libertarian Alliance, Free Life, and of Free Life Commentary. For more information his personal web site can be found at Dr. Gabb can be emailed at


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