Free Market Madness: Excerpt

Excerpted from Free Market Madness: Why Human Nature is at Odds with Economics and Why It Matters. Copyright (c) 2009 Peter A. Ubel; All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press.

From Chapter 13: Can Government Combat Obesity Without Becoming a “Nanny State”?

THE DECATUR , Georgia, sports bar Mulligan’s offers its patrons a sandwich that I would have sworn existed only in the imaginary world of Homer Simpson: a hot dog, wrapped in a beef patty, deep fried in oil, slathered in melted cheese, topped with chili, a dash of onions, and, to top it off, a fried egg. Known as “the Hamdog,” this particular meal, on its own, probably keeps four Georgia cardiologists gainfully employed.

David Harsanyi lovingly describes the Hamdog in the opening paragraphs of his libertarian manifesto, Nanny State. In the book, Harsanyi decries the “officious activists who would like to deny me the self-determination and pleasure of eating a Hamdog.” He then goes on to describe the terrible things that happen when nanny states get carried away protecting the people under their charge, creating regulations designed to do “whatever they can to stop us from eating.”1

In criticizing government regulations, libertarians like Harsanyi frequently draw on the metaphor of the nanny state, knowing that this rhetorical device will conjure images of overbearing, prudish people who, while perhaps well intentioned, can’t seem to let children be children. Even worse, this particular nanny, the nanny state, treats adults like children. If a grown man wants to indulge in a Hamdog, why should the government intervene? If he wants to drive a motorcycle without a helmet or an SUV without a seat belt, shouldn’t he, as an adult, be free to do as he pleases? When the government enacts laws to criminalize such behavior, Harsanyi contends that it is treating them like children.

Google the phrase nanny state, and you’ll quickly find hundreds of antigovernment links. Grover Norquist will show up, naturally, as he has made a point of referring to the nanny state while promoting his book Leave Us Alone.2 You’ll also find other emotive phrases recurring across these sites. One of my favorites is a book titled A Nation of Sheep, in which the government isn’t portrayed as treating people like children but, instead, as if they were mindless animals.3

You’re probably wondering what the nanny state was doing to prevent Harsanyi from swallowing a Hamdog. Did the Georgia legislature outlaw the sandwich? Were Decatur police jailing overweight people? Were the feds denying Social Security and Medicare benefits to people with high cholesterol?

Harsanyi is worried that all these kinds of things might happen. After all, the government ultimately relies on coercion to enforce its laws. And governments do use such powers to protect citizens from each other. Crimes against person and property can lead to imprisonment and loss of some rights.

But this level of coercion is rarely used by governments to control behaviors that affect only the people engaging in the behaviors. If I vandalize your property, the government will punish me, maybe even imprison me. But if I destroy my own property in a fit of rage, the government usually leaves me alone.

What, then, does Harsanyi say that the nanny state is doing to influence our waistlines? The worst he can say is that the government is “scaremongering,” even (gulp) threatening to tax food manufacturers. This may sound mild, but Harsanyi is concerned that the Twinkie fascists, as he calls them, are just warming up, “gaining momentum and influence at a startling pace.”4

Political extremists of all persuasions are often paranoid about the slippery slope, worrying that any tiny concessions they make will lead to complete absolution of their position. Gun rights activists worry that if the government requires businesses to conduct criminal checks on customers before selling them guns, law-abiding citizens will soon not be able to purchase hunting rifles. Pro-choice activists worry that if a state imposes a waiting period for women and girls requesting abortions, all abortions will soon be illegal.

Flaming moderate that I am, I don’t live in paranoia of the slippery slope. I know we can sensibly regulate gun sales and abortions without banning either activity. I recognize that there is no middle ground that will satisfy extremists. Good policy making rarely makes everyone happy. But I hope and believe that the government can help us tackle a problem like obesity without causing us to slide toward a cholesterol-free police state.

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