Magazine | August 15, 2011, Issue

Statism Down Our Throats

People who see everything as a problem to be solved by the application of exquisitely calibrated governmental force remind you of the maxim: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To be specific, a nail that can be pulled out and given to someone else who lacks a nail for historical reasons or possibly deep-rooted gender inequity. Since this person also lacks a hammer, you’ll have to buy him one, but he’ll have to take Hammer Training, or possibly Hammer Retraining if he previously used a wrench, and we’ll need to set guidelines for the handle to make sure it doesn’t fly off and hit someone uninsured. Not a federal issue, you say? Hah: He could still hit himself on the thumb, and that makes it a public-health issue.

Yes, “public health,” the Commerce Clause of the people who want to change what you’re doing. Enter Mark Bittman, a food writer who penned an op-ed for the New York Times about the wisdom of taxing unhealthy — i.e., delicious — foods. “The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available.”

Then they’ll eat their broccoli! Well, as pointed out: “An adult on a 2,000-calorie diet could satisfy recommendations for vegetable and fruit consumption in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans at an average price of $2 to $2.50 per day, or approximately 50 cents per edible cup equivalent.” Vegetables are less expensive than cigarettes. Unless, of course, you go to an organic store for something fertilized with albino-ox manure and irrigated with lark’s tears, but since organic is healthier — because, you know, it doesn’t have, you know, chemicals — there will be a push to make sure the subsidized sprouts are pesticide-free. The doughnut tax will be trebled so people won’t have to take out payday loans for kale. It’s either this or bankrupting Medicare with spiraling costs associated with the Bakery-Industrial Complex.

Bittman justifies it with the usual assertion: “Public health is the role of the government, and our diet is right up there with any other public responsibility you can name, from water treatment to mass transit.” The private diet is the public responsibility. So much for “keep your laws off my body,” eh? If you declared yourself romantically involved with a sirloin and took your meals in bed, the insistence that government “stay out of our bedrooms” would be instantly dropped, and the nutritional equivalent of the Saudi morality police would whip you with sticks until you replaced the mashed potato with broccoli.

Granted, mass transit is a public responsibility; look only to Article 16A, which says that “the Congress shall be responsible for getting people from one place to another, and a transfer must be given if demanded, but shall not be valid for a return trip, no matter what you say the other driver told you.” Municipal water systems are absolutely necessary as well, since private systems would mean your tap would gush forth a chunky broth of mouse noses and cattle offal. “Public health” shuts down any objections to privatizing these functions, and gives the statists the moral force to tax and regulate however they like. Besides, it works. Putting up signs forbidding someone to smoke within 20 feet of a building’s entrance saves lives. Let them smoke within 19 feet and people would be dropping like flocks of birds heading into a wind farm.

#page#No, it’s all part of public health. You’re putting the wrong things in your body and that’s everyone’s business. Oh, and stop the War on Drugs. And please keep smoking because we need the taxes. But don’t smoke. Thank you.

 Isn’t it hard to determine what’s “bad” food, if someone has it in moderation? I exercise. I have a dish of ice cream once a week. And I’d pay a tax based on the assumption I sit in a La-Z-Boy peering over my walrus belly at the idiot box, sucking a slurry of liquefied Oreos. Should a poor person pay more because he buys a bag of Fritos to give the kids a rare treat, or is that okay if he gets a sprouts voucher? Isn’t it likely that people will continue to eat exactly what they want, and the poor may fail to be swayed by posters and PSAs about the joys of slimy cooked carrots? How can this micromanagement of something so personal and infinitely varied ever work? Simple: “We have experts who can figure out how ‘bad’ a food should be to qualify, and what the rate should be.”

Experts! The best and brightest graduates of that arcane and dismal science, Digestive Economics. Don’t think the author’s some eat-your-peas killjoy, though. “It’s fun — inspiring, even — to think about implementing a program like this.” Really? Fun? Inspiring? Even well-paid dentists aren’t that happy about putting their hands in other people’s mouths.

Here’s a thought: Watching TV makes people sedentary and bulbous. You want to combat obesity, slap a fat VAT on television — the actors, the crew, the production companies, the networks, the set makers, the companies that put satellites into orbits. Tax them per hour of broadcast at a rate that makes the tube go dark for half the day. It’s for your own good. Don’t start weeping about “freedom” here, because you’d just be watching Fox anyway. Now, if you were watching a documentary about something important, like the effect of teak logging on the psyches of stressed elephants, well, we could talk about a waiver. Experts say it might work.

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

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