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Feeding Obesity

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Obesity-related medical costs for 2003 totaled $75 billion, according to research conducted by the nonprofit group RTI International and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, their report concludes, taxpayers are footing more than half the bill for these ailments.

How’s this? Because, reports the Washington Times (January 22), Medicare and Medicaid — government health-care programs — “cover sicknesses caused by obesity including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, several types of cancer and gallbladder disease.”

In other words, the government subsidizes people’s poor lifestyle choices.

Predictably, government officials are clueless. “Obesity has become a crucial health problem for our nation, and these findings show that the medical costs alone reflect the significance of the challenge.” That’s how Tommy Thompson, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, sees it.

Never mind that a “nation” cannot have a health problem. Only individuals can have health problems.

Nations have problems when their governments try to fix individuals’ problems. The state creates programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, which force one segment of the tax-paying population to pay for the health care of another segment, creating the incentive to avoid taking personal responsibility for one’s own life and to make others suffer the consequences. Eat at McDonald’s; drive everywhere; avoid exercise; smoke cigarettes; drink to excess; use drugs or ignore health warnings, if you like — your neighbor gets your doctor bill. Well, half of it, anyway.

Then, when increased demand for services — the unavoidable result when people don’t have to pay the full price for what they use — raises health-care costs, blame it on greedy doctors or the pharmaceutical industry and expand the government programs to cover even more people, even more sicknesses.

Then act surprised when the “significance of the challenge” — one hesitates to say “immensity of the problem” — in time requires even more government involvement.

It is unfortunate that people get sick. Sometimes it’s not their fault. But neither is it the fault of everyone else. A free society ought to leave such matters to individual choice. A free person ought to be able to choose to live an unhealthy life. Likewise, a free person ought to be able to choose to not be responsible for his neighbor’s bad decisions.

Of course, people should be free to give to charity — and they do, upwards of $200 billion per year — to provide assistance for those in need.

However, there is another argument that should be considered: a healthy society requires that people suffer negative consequences when they do the wrong thing. How else are we to differentiate between good and bad decisions? And what better incentive could exist for people to do the right thing?

Encouraging individuals to avoid taking responsibility for their own lives is not going to fix “our national health-care problem.” It only feeds a hungry beast.

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    Scott McPherson is policy adviser at The Future of Freedom Foundation. An advocate of the Free State Project, he lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.