Politics & Policy

Big Brother Is Feeding You

World health bureaucrats invade your diet.

My Christmas present from my wife this year was a year’s enrollment in the fitness program of my local gymnasium. And she meant it to sting.

”It’ll be vegetarianism next,” said a sympathetic taxi driver to whom I had explained my situation after staggering, winded from the gym, directly into his waiting taxi for the journey home five blocks away. Well, no, actually. Vegetarianism is no threat in my household. My wife likes to tackle a good steak, preferably accompanied by a hearty Zinfandel. Suppose, however, I were married to Gro Harlem Brundtland, former director general of the World Health Organization? I would be sentenced to a healthy lifestyle on everything from alcohol to soybeans.

At least I infer these private tastes from Brundtland’s public profile. She is a stern disciplinarian in the cause of health, both a socialist and a severe prohibitionist, who during her time at the WHO pressured governments into taking active measures to enforce healthier lifestyles on their citizens. Her great monument is the International Tobacco Treaty under which governments agree to ban tobacco sponsorship of sports, halt cigarette advertising, tax tobacco products prohibitively, and so on.

Brundtland has now returned to Norway. Her successor is a distinguished Korean doctor who has kept a slightly lower profile. Underneath his comforting bedside manner, however, the WHO now seeks to apply to obesity–i.e. being overweight–the very statist interventionist techniques that she pioneered in campaigns against tobacco and alcohol. A new WHO report wants the governments of the world to tax some foods and subsidize others, restrict food advertising, and take other measure to encourage their citizens to eat healthy.

Supporting this campaign are those “activists” and nongovernmental organizations that see every problem as a conspiracy by U.S. corporations, in this case a sort of MacSpiracy. And finally there is international liberal opinion, in the media and elsewhere, which is instinctively attracted to medical authoritarianism–namely, allowing doctors to order people around in a way that they would never allow policemen or soldiers to do.

Only the U.S. government is standing out against the medical authoritarianism in this report–both arguing that the science underlying it is faulty and that anyway the WHO should rely more on personal responsibility and less on state power to improve health.

At this point a certain bluff commonsense type always asks: But what’s wrong with leaning on people to lead healthier lives‹even with taxing them in a healthy direction?

Well, as it happens, a great deal.

In the first place, organizations like the WHO, who direct the ordering of other people’s lives are not very accountable to the people concerned. Bodies like the WHO have very considerable power–and their recommendations can have economic effects. As Christopher Caldwell noted in the London Financial Times, if the WHO issues a warning that travelers should avoid a particular country because of SARS, it can very likely destroy their tourist trade and severely damage their general economic prospects. These are not trivial matters–and it is important that such power be exercised responsibly. Yet as even politically correct Canadian officials quietly moaned off the record last year, there were suspicions that the WHO put Canada on the SARS at-risk list in order to avoid the purely political embarrassment of having only Asian nations on it. There needs to be far greater oversight and accountability of these bodies. At present it is they who mainly hold governments and corporations to account. In the jargon of the left, they need to be demystified.

Second, as anyone who has followed fashions in nutrition knows, the idea of a correct diet is constantly changing. Expert opinions at WHO, as elsewhere, are liable to look mistaken and even harmful a few years later. In addition, almost all the foods under attack in the WHO report, notably sugar, are perfectly reasonable components of a sensibly balanced diet provided they are taken in moderation.

There might just be a modest case for making official information on diet more widely available (though no case for taxing the citizenry into virtuous eating habits) if people had no knowledge of, or interest in, diet and nutrition. But diet is the topic of half the conversations in North America.

As for those obese people who genuinely are overweight because they are woefully ignorant, they are very unlikely to respond to government information because they won’t read it. Nor to higher prices since, if they were price-responsive in the eating habits, they would already be eating well. Many healthy foods are cheaper than fast food. The sole effect of higher taxes, then would be to impoverish a section of the community that is already likely to be relatively disadvantaged.

But the main reason to object to authoritarian plans like those of the WHO is that they are an impertinence. Why should some foreign bureaucrat who has never met me and who knows nothing of my lifestyle tell me what to eat and in what quantities. My wife may legitimately suggest that I take my turn down at the gym. She knows me, is all too well aware of how I live, and she would merely sigh sadly if I were to refuse her present. But how do the WHO and its “public interest” acolytes justify their intrusion into my eating habits? Former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm exposed the deception in these kind of policies when a child-care bureaucrat told him that he, the bureaucrat, loved Gramm’s children as much as the senator did.

“Really?” replied Gramm. “What are their names?”

The justification for such intrusion is advanced by medical authoritarians is that bad nutrition leads to bad health that in turn leads to higher expenditures on health care by the entire community. Some doctors abroad even refuse to treat patients who continue smoking or refuse to abandon unhealthy lifestyles. If such a justification were valid, however, it would demonstrate that “free” health care is not free at all–it is purchased at the cost of our most personal liberties.

As it happens, however, the arguments are not even valid in their own terms. As the Harvard social scientist, Kip Viscusi, demonstrated some years ago, the health costs that smokers impose on the government and community are substantially outweighed by the lower demands that they make on state pensions and geriatric care. If costs and benefits were the deciding factors, the WHO should be engaged in the promotion of smoking–and for that matter of an unhealthy diet.

Cold-blooded, heartless, economic reasoning, you reply. Very well, I agree. But it was the partisans of WHO control who invented the budgetary justification for good health programs–not me. I merely pointed out where its logic actually led.

Not that logic will determine the matter. International bureaucrats, socialist politicians, and medical authoritarians are determined to run our lives in any event. It is not for nothing that Orwell’s 1984 begins with Winston Smith doing compulsory physical jerks under the watchful gaze on Big Brother on the telescreen.

And for what? As the professor of medicine at Dublin once wisely remarked: If someone tells you that you will not die of cancer or heart disease if you give up cigarettes and fatty foods, you should ask them: “What will I die of then, doctor?”

John O’Sullivan is editor-in-chief of The National Interest. This piece first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission. O’Sullivan can be reached through Benador Associates

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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