It's a Big, Fat World

For some years now, it's been increasingly obvious that Americans are getting fatter by the day.  Long the stuff of late-night comedians and dirty looks on international flights, obesity has now reached the point where serious engineering consequences are required.

Disney's legendary "It's a Small World" ride is currently being redesigned and revamped.  Not to provide improved technology for the singing puppets; if anything, the older ones were more intricately designed.  The year-long overhaul is to solve the problem of jams, as boats carrying overweight passengers tend to get stuck on low spots in the flume.  One can only imagine the feelings of hundreds of passengers trapped behind such a predicament, as Disney staff attempt to carefully extricate the source of the problem, while hearing the incessant strains of "It's a world of laughter, a world of cheer...".

While the worst result of this sort of mishap is a few sessions of therapy, overweight passengers have led directly to transport deaths.  A deadly crash of a commuter aircraft in 2003 was caused, in part, by a grossly overloaded plane.

The plane was in full compliance with government loading requirements.  The trouble was that the FAA bases load regulations on a decades-old estimate of what folks weigh, and how much luggage they drag along with them.  After the crash, the FAA adjusted these estimates upward by ten pounds or so, but that wasn't nearly enough: the latest regulations call for an additional estimate increase of 9 pounds for men, and 18 pounds (!) for women.  Much the same thing happened in 2006 with the Coast Guard, when an overloaded water taxi capsized and drowned 5 people.  Apparently fat doesn't float, or at least not enough.

Now, a large portion - a hefty helping, as it were - of the blame can be placed on individual freedom.  After all, nobody is strapping down Americans and stuffing them full of Big Macs and milkshakes.  And the increasing affluence that allows people to eat in restaurants more frequently is something to be celebrated, not mourned.

But the government has had a super-sized, and unhelpful, influence on the sort of foods we eat, from the nonsensical sugar tariffs to the infamous "mystery meat" of school lunches.

Never prone to being discouraged by previous failure, however, our government now hopes to regulate us to slimness. It's not the feds though.  For once, local government is stepping up to the dinner plate.  The Board of Health of the City of New York has voted to ban artificial trans fats at restaurants - that is, the source of flavor for everything from cheap fries to ethnic foods.

There is a tremendous amount of research saying that trans fats are bad for you.  It's also been thoroughly proven that doughnuts are unhealthy.  So is chocolate cake, riding motorcycles, and running with scissors.  But all these things are individual, personal choices.  Yes, they have a harmful effect on the person making them.  Yes, they can cause collateral damage - nobody wants to sit next to Jabba the Hutt on a flight to Singapore.  But there are fair and straightforward solutions to such issues, none of which require government intervention, and which place the responsibility squarely where it belongs: on the individual in question.

At some point, reasonable men can agree that some vices should be regulated.  Drinking alcohol is a personal choice but, if abused, it can easily lead to negative consequences for plenty of other people.  Legalizing drugs produces stagnation on local economies and greatly increases depression and suicide rates - an unfortunate lesson Europe is beginning to learn.

It is hard to imagine any outside consequences that would affect someone else from allowing an individual to eat what he wants or ride a motorcycle without a helmet.  The only quasi-rational argument you ever see, is that it costs the taxpayers extra for the health-care costs of such unwise people - but that is an argument against taxpayer-funded health care, not an argument for further infringements of personal freedom.  And that must be the deciding factor.  Does the personal action affect anyone other than the person making it, and if so, what is the least intrusive way to make amends?

At bottom, what is freedom?  It's the right to be allowed to make your own decisions, free of outside interference, as long as they don't harm anyone else; and even then, interfere only insofar as is required to mitigate or compensate for that harm.

Such freedom specifically implies the right to make stupid decisions, and live with the consequences.  If we are only allowed to make the right decisions, then we aren't making any decisions at all.  And who, exactly, decides what the "right" decision is?  Government, obviously; but a worse track record on decision-making would be difficult to find.

No, the only way to be free and fair, is to let people make their own decisions, and to force them to live with the consequences without rushing to bail them out or enact new laws preventing others from following suit.  Otherwise, "liberty" is merely a word with no meaning.

Read other articles by Hobbes or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

Rather than legislate the problem, we fatties ought to pay for our extra weight.  If we cause extra burden, we should make up the difference.  Another instance where we know our rights, but have completely abdicated the associated responsibility.

November 1, 2007 6:32 AM
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