Promoting public health and morality by preventing self harm

Do you have the right to eat what you want?

To most people, even posing such a question would seem ridiculous, as we take such freedoms for granted. Yet the idea that there should be free choice in foods is under relentless assault by neo-Prohibitionist busybodies who believe that the government should prohibit food deemed unhealthy:

The forces of neo-Prohibitionism are afoot everywhere, seeking to minimize not just our choices when it comes to food and drink, but our very pleasure. In San Francisco, health officials have cracked down on high-end bars that make their own bitters. In New York, raw eggs have been banned from use in cocktails such as sloe gin fizzes. When will it ever stop?
Nick Gillespie has an interview with "culinary freedom fighter Liz Williams, the founder and president of New Orleans' own Southern Food and Beverage Museum" which I would embed here but the link doesn't work. Don't miss it.

I find myself wondering whether government-enforced dietary restrictions constitute "morality" and whether such moral considerations matter enough to form the basis of laws. We seem to take it for granted that prohibition of substances such as alcohol and drugs is grounded in morality, but why? Isn't the primary underlying argument that these substances are bad for the health, and thus the immorality lies in self-harm? The idea is that if you are so immoral as to harm yourself, society has the right to send you to prison for it. In the name of "morality."

Frankly, I see very little difference between the immorality of one form of self harm as opposed to another. An alcoholic or a drug addict may shave more years off his life more quickly than a food addict, but eating the wrong foods for too long can also have devastating, often fatal, health consequences.

What about moral tradition? Are not people who overeat called "gluttons"? Is not gluttony one of the Seven Deadly Sins?

Church leaders from the Middle Ages (e.g., St. Gregory the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas) took a more expansive view of gluttony, arguing that it also consists in an anticipation of meals, the eating of delicacies, and costly foods, seeking after sauces and seasonings, and eating too eagerly.
So there are solid, traditional moral and religious grounds for policing food.

Naturally, libertarians can be expected to resolutely oppose the policing of food. So can most conservatives -- especially those who call themselves small government conservatives.

What I've never been able to understand, though, is how using the power of the state to punish self-harm constitutes conservatism. I have yet to see a conservative explanation as to why imprisoning people for taking unapproved drugs is a legitimate exercise of the state function, but not prohibiting unhealthy foods. If the former jibes with conservative theory, then why not the latter? And if according to conservative theory, the government has the legal right (and a moral duty) to prohibit drugs and foods (and other high risk activities), then why should it not also not have the same moral and legal right to manage health care?

It all flows from the idea that the government is there to prevent individual self harm.

posted by Eric on 06.10.10 at 11:36 AM


I disagree that it flows from the idea of preventing self-harm. It flows from disgust at a lack of control over any kind of appetite.

Donna B.   ·  June 10, 2010 12:55 PM

February, while attempting to walk past a mirror hanging in the transit area between living room and kitchen, I noticed movement in the mirror which caught my eye.

It was my belly. It was preceding me to the kitchen. Thankfully, I was ensconsed in a scotch induced stupor, so I immediately acted. Forty seconds later I was talking to a young man at Nutri-Systems. I wanted his assurance that if I stuck to their program, I would lose the extra baggage. And, critically, that their program was simple; they would tell me what to eat and when to eat. Then, I needed word that I would still be able to booze it up, hence maintaining the proper juche necessary to succeed. His only advice was that I change from "brown" juche to "white" juche. Good-bye Mr. Scotch, hello Mr. Crisp White (in five liter boxes.)

It's June. I bought two months worth of Nutri-Systems "meals", and I'm now thirty pounds lighter. I can see the boy parts in the shower without bending over, clothing fits better and the chronic heartburn is gone. Actually, the big score in all this was the disappearance of the chronic heartburn. I think this is due to all the methane that is created by changing ones diet.

Grocery shopping post Nutri-Systems is a bit of a puzzle. One chicken breast will serve for three or four meals. So buying a tray of chicken breasts at the market for six bucks is out. A dozen eggs lasts a dozen days.

I have changed the way I think and act on food. Last night's night out presented a twelve-ounce rib eye with dungeness crab and bernaise sauce. I ate all my vegetables, and half my steak, et alia. I'll eat the balance of last night's meal today.

My conclusion? We need a federal program that will require us all to eat Nutri-Systems meals. This should increase the demand for employees at Nutri-Systems, thereby ending the unemployment problem. Need an investment plan? Check out NTRI. 52 week low, $13.20. High? $33.54. Currently? $21.12.

But for this to work, we will need a federal mandate. Don't let the fact that I lost all this weight on my own serve to dissuade those who wish to take stronger actions against those of you who remain overweight. Fatties! Fatty, fatty, fatties!

You cannot succeed on your own. That's what a government is for.

OregonGuy   ·  June 10, 2010 12:59 PM

It flows from disgust

Ah. So you think it is a good idea to legislate according to feelings? Or are you arguing against that position?

M. Simon   ·  June 10, 2010 1:08 PM

I just find it hilarious that the only "choice" you have about "your body" is the choice to kill your baby.

It's funny in an endy sort of way.

Veeshir   ·  June 10, 2010 2:44 PM

The traditional governmental role in restricting intoxicants (generally alcohol until the 20th century) wasn't based on self-harm so much as it was based on the fact that intoxicants cause people to do stupid things like murder, rape, suicide, riding horses fast through town, etc. Gluttony and too much red meat, while not good things, seldom cause this.

Clayton E. Cramer   ·  June 10, 2010 3:04 PM

"So there are solid, traditional moral and religious grounds for policing food."
Certainly for controlling one's own appetites, which cultivates virtue.
A government mandate prohibiting a high fat diet is mere officiousness.

Anonymous   ·  June 10, 2010 3:14 PM

Good point about the role of alcohol and drugs in causing people to do "stupid things like murder, rape, suicide" etc. (Although I would include suicide as self harm.)

You're right that food does not cause people to do these things. However, they are all independently illegal antisocial acts for which wrongdoers may be prosecuted. Prohibiting things because they might play a role in triggering them in some people constitutes preemptive law enforcement -- like criminalizing guns because some people might misuse them.

But there are many substances which are criminalized without regard to whether they facilitate other illegal behavior, such as steroids, tobacco, khat, and unapproved medications

The rationale behind listing drugs on the Controlled Substances List (the basis of modern drug law enforcement) is whether there is a "potential for abuse" and/or whether dependence can be formed:

While "abuse" is not defined, I think in the context of drugs it pretty clearly means self harm.

Eric Scheie   ·  June 10, 2010 3:44 PM

Veeshir, I have never been able to understand a theory of "privacy" that would allow a woman to cut out her fetus, but would not allow the consumption of mood altering substances.

Eric Scheie   ·  June 10, 2010 3:51 PM

M Simon - I didn't argue either way, just disputed where the "morality" comes from. But if I were to argue, I would argue that a government has no business legislating morality regardless its source.

Donna B.   ·  June 10, 2010 4:41 PM

"It flows from disgust at a lack of control over any kind of appetite."

Take that attitude, and throw in the guns from government enforcement--and that way lies tyranny.

William Woody   ·  June 10, 2010 4:55 PM

A theory of limited government implies the enforcement of a limited morality: do not kill, lie, or steal, and defend the nation that enforces such.

All other moral considerations should remain private functions.

Brett   ·  June 11, 2010 7:55 AM

Eric, that used to be the epitome of selective "freedoms", now I would have to say drug use has been trumped by how various foods are verboten.

If in NYC you tried to stop a woman from having an abortion you'd be worse than Dr. Mengele, but they can stop a private business from selling trans-fats to a person who wants them.

Veeshir   ·  June 11, 2010 6:47 PM

Post a comment

April 2011
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


Search the Site


Classics To Go

Classical Values PDA Link


Recent Entries


Site Credits