A Recipe for a Bloated State

Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Houston Chronicle, which was once the conservative paper in this now one-newspaper town, has become increasingly leftist in recent years. Consistent with this trend is today's article in the "Metropolitan" section: "If history is the guide, it will take more than good advice to get us to take care of ourselves," by Eric Berger. The article, while appearing as news, is actually part trial balloon and part editorial. Its intent is clearly to push for more government interference in our daily lives in the guise of protecting our health. In this respect, it is not all that interesting. What I find blogworthy about it is that it is a good example of the kind of formula I have repeatedly seen being used by leftist "journalists" and other advocates of big government to mold public opinion in favor of the next big governmental intrusion into our private lives. What is the formula? Let's go through it step-by-step. Let's read the recipe that has been used to overfeed our already bloated nanny state.

1. Remind the reader that the government is there to solve our problems.

This is done right off the bat, playing off the title of the article.

Wear your seat belt. Quit smoking.

These were arguably the two most widely recognized public health campaigns of the last few decades. And they worked. Seat-belt use has increased fivefold, and adult smoking rates have fallen nearly in half.

Let's consider the assertion that these government interventions "worked" to achieve their stated purpose. How do we measure this? How one evaluates this depends on what one's values are, right? If you value your life, you won't need the government (or anyone else) to nag you to do something that patently makes sense. In fact, you won't want the government forcing you to do anything. Freedom is the ability to use one's mind as he sees fit. Government edicts, regardless of whether they might fall into the category of "good advice" directly interfere with our freedom because the government can force us to obey its edicts. Once we accept the notion that the government should tell us what to do, the door is open for the government to give us all kinds of orders, many or most of which will not promote our lives, even in such a narrowly-delimited context like fastening a seatbelt when driving.

So in the strict, numerical sense of lives not ending in, say car accidents, it is arguable (but not wholly incontestable) that seatbelt laws worked. But in the larger sense of whether the government itself has become more or less dangerous to our lives, the seatbelt laws have failed. All the lives allegedly saved by seatbelt laws are lives lived less free. Nevertheless, the writer has succeeded in distracting most readers from such petty issues as individual rights by focusing on statistics yanked out of their broader context.

Having shifted the debate to how "effective" the government is at "protecting" us, the writer has now set the stage to excuse yet another intrusion of the government into our personal lives.

2. Manufacture a new problem for the government to solve.

The writer introduces this problem immediately. "Now many health providers believe the greatest threat to the nation's vitality comes from a different foe — fat."

Remember: the writer has already shifted the focus of the reader from his rights as an individual, and from the fact that it is these rights that the government should be protecting. He now has to make the reader forget that he is an individual, at least for long enough to smuggle in the idea that there is something in it for him in bigger government.

In this article, the common denominator between seatbelt laws, anti-smoking laws, and the plethora of anti-obesity proposals being floated around is this: these are all laws designed to "protect" us from our own bad decisions. Consider this: If someone else smokes himself into a hospital ward or flies out of his car's windshield during a crash because he refuses to use a seatbelt, isn't that's his problem? The writer has to make the "problem" of his crusade appear to be the reader's problem.

This is often done in two ways. (1) Stress the ill effects being suffered by countless individuals due to the problem. Tug at the reader's heartstrings while discouraging him from thinking about the issue as a matter of personal responsibility. (2) Take advantage of the fact that these personal decisions are effectively made into the reader's problems by past instances of government interference. Here, this is done by discussing obesity in terms of being a "public health" issue, which is easy enough to do because of how entangled the government already is in our medical industry. (All italics added.)

[D]eclines in smoking have paralleled cigarette tax hikes. Spiraling weights, then, might require similar action.

"There comes a point where society decides that public health is being damaged too much by inaction, and something needs to be done," said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "We are moving headlong toward that with obesity."

Local and national health policy experts generally agree that, to grapple with an increasingly obese country, government must do more than just provide basic information.

Whether these efforts ultimately lead to a tax on unhealthy foods — a fat tax — is far from clear.

If all these experts are concerned, it must be a crisis! Well, taxes have been used to address crises like these in the past, and if it's a crisis, we need to act fast! Let's pass a tax! I find it interesting that we seem always to be encouraged to jerk our knees in times of "crisis" rather than think, which is what a crisis most urgently requires. Nevertheless, we, the readers, are supposed to be pretty damned worried right about now and even willing to consider higher taxes! (Many readers will have it in the backs of their minds that the taxes will defray public health costs, but this point is made explicit later. This fact is part of what is used to make readers favor the fat tax.)

Now that the writer has established that there is a crisis brewing and that the government is already there to help us. He now needs to make sure we are sufficiently alarmed

3. Present the reader with blizzard of "evidence" for why the problem urgently needs to be solved.

An entire subsection of the article is devoted to this. In rapid succession, we are presented with the following kinds of facts in laundry-list terms. Obesity can cause other serious ailments. Obesity is highly prevalent in the adult population. A Texas legislator will "not back down" from legislation to add a child's body mass index to his school's report card. A California legislator was opposed in a recent attempt to impose a 2 cent tax on soda. There's a bit more, followed by this quote. (All italics mine.)

Yet some experts believe that as the public becomes better informed about obesity, attitudes toward stricter measures, perhaps even taxes, may change.

"At the beginning, people kind of resent government involvement; they view it as an infringement on their privacy," said Dr. William Klish, head of Texas Children's Hospital's department of medicine.

"But all the government is trying to do is make people aware that obesity is not a cosmetic issue, it's a disease. Once they become aware, once we do that, I think the government can begin to take other, stronger, steps."

History suggests it will take more than just good advice to get people to take care of themselves. Seat-belt use didn't rise until the 1980s, when states began enacting mandatory laws. And declines in smoking have paralleled cigarette tax hikes. Spiraling weights, then, might require similar action.

Note how the writer quickly moves from listing some scientific evidence about the dangers of obesity (which has nothing to say about the question of whether the government should do anything about it), to listing the recent efforts of frustrated legislators to "address" the problem, to citing experts who openly advocate greater government interference in our personal lives.

The writer has to be trying to make us panic rather than think when we read this. Otherwise, how could he expect us to swallow the words of Dr. Klish? In one breath, he says, "[A]ll the government is trying to do is make people aware that obesity is ... a disease." In the next, "Once they become aware, once we do that, I think the government can begin to take other, stronger, steps." I somehow doubt that these "other, stronger steps" will include "shouting louder that, 'Obesity is a disease.'"

Just such steps are outlined in a section designed to lead us by the nose to the conclusion that they aren't threats to our liberty, but minor inconveniences unworthy of much concern: "Penny for prevention." This section outlines just a few of the "other, stronger steps" our government might take. They include: new taxes on soft drinks and sweets. The entire rest of this section focuses on public opposition to such taxes, measured by polls, and a lead-in to the next step of the author's recipe.

4. Give a few feeble objections to the proposed government intrusion.

Now that the writer has created a soil of panic upon which he hopes the seeds of acceptance for government actions will grow, he needs to weed out any lingering objections any readers might still have. He does this by presenting a few feeble objections so that concern for individual rights (which these weak objections are supposed to represent) will seem small. He starts off by citing one Dan Mindus of the Center for Consumer Freedom, which opposes the "fat tax," but only by simpering for other kinds of government interference! Mindus "said the government would do better to focus on encouraging children to exercise than taxing certain foods." Weak objection number one fails to question whether the government should be "fighting obesity" at all.

Further objections are presented in the section, "Where do taxes stop?" Mindus does little better here, asking such questions as whether we should also tax people of their sexual behavior. But either he doesn't make much of a case against the "war on obesity" our government seems to be mobilizing for, or if he did, it wasn't presented.

5. Restate the need for a government "solution" to the "problem," but make it seem like a minor inconvenience.

This was set up earlier, especially in the "Penny for prevention" section, but it's driven home here. As I noted before, one tool for advocacy of bigger government is to make it seem to the reader that he can get something from it. Here, it's lower taxes!

"Look, the federal budget will be released soon, and how much money will be devoted to any of this?" Lee said. "I don't know if they're putting their money where their mouth is.

"This will be our burden for the next 100 years. We can pay a little now for health promotion, or we can pay a lot more later for health care."

Nowhere in the article does the question occur as to whether the government should be paying for medical costs in the first place. This, as I have alluded elsewhere, would be the best way it could protect our freedom. Incidentally, some would feel a greater incentive to better control their weight, and those who did not would fail to incur medical expenses on anyone else.

Obesity -- of our already bloated nanny state -- is indeed a public concern, but until our journalists quit putting out junk food like this for consumption by the body politic, our government's waistline is only going to get bigger, posing a dire threat to our liberty and our lives in the process. A "fat tax" will be just one more intrusion into our personal lives that will make us just a little more numb to the fact that we are just a little less in control of our own lives. That's real danger in this so-called "public health" debate.

-- CAV

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