(On a tip of the horns to Slashfood:)
Legislators in Louisiana have rejected a pair of proposed bills that would have regulated “healthy” versus “unhealthy” foods and banned Louisiana residents participating in state food stamp-type programs (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) from using state assistance funds to purchase “unhealthy” foods.
I understand that people don’t always make good choices about what to put in their bodies. Or on their bodies. Or around their bodies. In fact, people make astonishingly poor choices every day, in such large numbers that it’s something of a miracle the human race hasn’t humiliated and eaten itself into oblivion. That said, one of the fundamental notions upon which the United States was founded was the idea that each person has the right to eat, sleep, think and work as he or she sees fit (with reasonable exceptions necessary to maintain public order and prevent literal suicidal/homicidal/maniacal tendencies).
In shorter words: if I want to stuff myself with M&Ms, french fries and root beer, in the comfort and privacy of my own home, that’s my right as a free, adult citizen of these United States. If you don’t like it, shove off, skippy.
Now, I’m not saying these choices come without consequences. If I do elect to maintain myself on nothing but sugar, peanut butter and booze, my health will probably suffer. And yes, as the Louisiana legislator responsible for the bill pointed out, to the extent the state is responsible for my medical care, the state pays the penalty for my lack of foresight and/or common sense.
Wherein lies the real solution to the problem.
Sadly, it’s something the immoral have been telling us for decades: don’t hate the player, hate the game.
In other words: if you want to take legal action to stop the high costs of obesity on Louisiana, address it at the state level – the same way the state deals with other forms of irresponsibility. Crash your car too many times? We revoke your license. Eat too many candy bars? The issue isn’t “ban the candy” – it’s force people to accept the responsibility of their choices. Pay for the health care to the extent the individual is taking personal responsibility for helping to eliminate self-induced problems. If the individual refuses to take the necessary steps to assist in his or her own recovery, the health care funds go away.
Now, before people call me out as an evil, heartless Yak, permit me to point out that states and health care companies do exactly this with other types of problems. Had The Random Father needed a liver transplant during the last years of his life, he couldn’t have qualified for a donor liver because he had alcohol problems. His refusal to control his behavior represented a choice, and it had consequences that he would have had to accept. No action in life is any different. With freedom comes responsibility.
The problem, as I see it, is a change in the State’s attitude – one that mirrors a change in society as a whole. The culture no longer requires people to take responsibility for their actions, and as a result, the state no longer pursues responsibility-based options for control. Instead of requiring people to face the consequences of mistakes and poor judgment, the state steps in to take responsibility on our behalf. “We can’t trust all of you to be responsible about soda pop, so none of you get one.”
Pardon me, but that’s third-grade thinking if I ever heard it. Parents, teachers and those in authority do have a responsibility to watch out for the interests of children, the handicapped, and others incapable of watching over themselves – but once the rest of us reach adulthood, we have the right and the obligation to make decisions for ourselves. And to live with the consequences.
Worse yet, the proposed Louisiana bill would have discriminated against the poor in a way I find abominable. It’s difficult enough to grow up poor amid the general affluence of the mostly-upper-middle-class suburban population of much of the United States. Harder still in a recession, where even “those who once had” are increasingly finding themselves among the needy and the “have-nots.” To tell a responsible, active child that (s)he can’t have a soda pop because the state says poor people shouldn’t be able to waste their money on treats represents the worst kind of classism – the very kind that this country was founded to eliminate. It reinforces a culture of dependency and draws unfair distinctions between rich and poor. Yes, I know that’s not the state’s intention – the legislator just wanted to control those the state can control, and knows he can’t force the rich to comply. But the “unintended” impact is just as real as the intended one, and in some ways even more dangerous.
You can’t legislate morality. You can’t legislate good choices. But you can legislate consequences – and that’s the place to start (and to end). Educate people the best you can. Make laws to enforce negative consequences for truly bad behavior. Require personal responsibility, for a change.
But if you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave my candy bars alone.