I dislike first ladies — as a concept, I mean, not as dinner dates. I think of the first lady as an individual who happens to be married to the guy with the job, rather than as a job in its own right with a huge staff and bloated budget. But I seem to be in a minority, and most Americans appear to be comfortable with the neo-monarchical inflating of the president’s wife into a full-blown Queen Consort. So, to give all those staffers the pretense of something to do, it’s necessary to identify a “cause” for the first lady to “champion.” The Arab Spring? Whoa, steady on. By “cause,” we mean something kinda non-political, more like good works, but with the force of federal power behind it.
So it was decided that Michelle Obama would go to war on childhood obesity. Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree that there’s a lot of it about, and it doesn’t say anything good about where we’re headed. And so it was that the president signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Like I said, all very bipartisan: It passed in the Senate by unanimous voice vote — because who’s against healthy, hunger-free kids? And thus, in order to lend credibility to a make-work project for the Queen Consort, America is now a land in which a government bureaucrat at the Department of Agriculture sets the maximum permitted calories for school lunches across the fruited plain and all the way to Guam. “I’m confident we have a core healthy set of proposed diets for children,” said Kevin Concannon, the U.S. undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services. At the European Commission, the chef de cabinet, despite his title, does not actually determine the national menu. But in Washington, Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, is literally the chef de cabinet. He sets the set menu — and there’s no ordering à la carte, not when the carte stretches from Maine to Hawaii.
Okay, that’s enough lame francophone punning. This year some guy working in some office someplace some ways down the chain from the chef de cabinet decided to reduce the permitted lunchtime calorie intake of American middle-schoolers from 785 calories to 700 calories. I chanced to read this news while sitting in my doctor’s office staring at a Body Mass Index chart on the wall. If you’ve ever attended a middle-school choir concert and watched a 4′10″ boy warbling along with a 5′6″ girl from the grade below, you’ll know that things can get really wacky developmentally round about Grade Six. But a bureaucrat in Washington has decided that, food-wise, one size fits all. The World Health Organization considers BMI 25 to be overweight for Caucasians but BMI 23 for Asians. Yet a bureaucrat in Washington can breezily impose a uniform calorific intake on the school cafeterias of Honolulu and Buffalo.
The first lady was on hand for the launch of the new federally mandated lunch limits. The stench of failure and risibility has not yet attached to this initiative as it has to so many other Obama-era bureaucratic excesses. But, through September, returning schoolchildren complained about their new, insufficient lunches. Teachers and parents who took up their cause did so in statist terms, beseeching the commissars to raise the mandated calorie limits. Very few did so on first-principle grounds — which is to say the argument that a system in which a centralized bureaucracy attempts to impose a uniform menu on a nation of 300 million people is nuts, and cannot survive. In theory, education is the responsibility of local school districts in sovereign states. Yet somehow a bureaucrat in the Department of Agriculture wound up with a monopoly on what your kids eat.
Where do you go to vote out the Commissar of School Lunches? Even if Romney wins in November, I doubt this will be anybody’s big priority. Statists well understand that you don’t need a president-for-life if you’ve got a bureaucracy-for-life. Sometimes your team has to take a time-out for a couple of years, but, even when they do, all the departments and agencies and bureaus are still in place, hyper-regulating away. I mean, how often does the party of small government actually abolish anything?
And if Obama wins, you’ll get the National Calorie Limits approach to government supersized: A vast regulatory octopus entwining itself around every aspect of the citizen’s life. America is already hideously over-bureaucratized and pushing against the limits. It’s not a small, homogeneous Scandinavian nation of a few million. It’s a vast sprawling broke behemoth for which the concentration of power at the center will prove fatal.
In my latest book (now out in paperback!), I mention the famous image that closes Planet of the Apes: a loinclothed Charlton Heston falling to his knees as he comes face to face with a shattered Statue of Liberty poking out of the desolate sands. And I write that liberty is not a statue, and that is not how liberty falls. The more likely dystopia is a land where the Statue still stands, yet liberty itself withers away remorselessly, often under cover of bright shiny novel “liberties” and “freedoms” — “free” health care, “free” college education with “free” contraceptives for 30-year-old students. Until eventually you reach a point where a man in an office thousands of miles away is determining how much your child can eat — and nobody finds that unusual.
Didn’t Oliver Twist have something to say about this?
“Please, sir, I want some more.”
Dickensian London: “Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?”
Obamafied America: “Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the luncheon allotted by the National Dietary Commissar?”
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).