Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet

Issue Number 120
27th April 2004

Fat Children: Sad, but not Our Business
by Sean Gabb

I was on the radio last Sunday evening, and again this morning, and again this afternoon—and may be on the television later this week—to discuss the supposed problem of fat children. Apparently, 15 per cent of children are "obese", and the Government is proposing to start urging children to take more exercise. I was brought on to oppose the notion of government interference in matters of lifestyle. The objections are easily stated:

First, we can doubt the claim about the 15 per cent. Without the full methodology attached, all statistics are to be doubted. What definition was given to the word "obese"? How were those found within it counted? I was not told the other evening, and I have no doubt it is yet another of the statistical illusions manufactured to scare us into reliance on the authorities. Certainly, I am not aware, as I go about my business in this country, that there are more fat children than when I was myself one.

Second, even if the alleged facts are true, it is not the business of the government to do anything about them. It is not the business of the government to tell us how to live, or to tell parents how their children should live. If there must be a government, its duties ought to be confined to protecting the lives and properties of individuals and defending the country against foreign aggressions. How much we eat, and what this may do to us, and what we might do in response, are no more matters for government concern than is the matter of what place of worship we attend and how often we go there.

Third. even granting a right of interference, there is no reason to suppose that the government can effectively interfere. Human constitutions are so different that being fat is best seen as an individual problem with individual solutions. There is no one prescription the politicians can make and apply to the whole country. Some people get fat on almost nothing. Others can eat as they will without gaining a pound. Some people do well from heavy exercise. Others are harmed by light exercise. Indeed, though weighing 30 stones or whatever must be harmful, we do not really know what harm comes from being just fat or even very fat. The experts pretend here to knowledge they do not have. Doubtless, any advice they give will be good for some people. It cannot, I repeat, be good for everyone.

Fourth, even if this were not so, it is unlikely that the government can stop children from getting fat. The proposal is that they should be required to learn about diet and exercise while at school. Bearing in mind how bad a job the schools do at teaching their inmates to read and write and count, I cannot see what good will come of this. Governments are generally better at claiming abilities than at showing them. Indeed, apart perhaps from collecting taxes and fighting wars, I cannot think of anything done by a government that could not be done better by voluntary effort - assuming, that is, it should be done at all.

Fifth—and following from the second point—it is not advisable for the government to interfere, and would not be if interference were likely to do any good. Perhaps, in certain areas, the government is better able to choose for us than we are ourselves. But unless its effects are likely to be catastrophic, the public good is better served by leaving us alone. Whenever the government does something for us, it takes away from our own ability to do that for ourselves. This diminishes us as human beings. Better, I suggest, a people who often eat and drink too much, and who on average die a few years before they might, than a people deprived of autonomy and shepherded into a few extra years of intellectual and moral passivity.

I put some of these arguments the other evening with moderate ability, and have been putting them since elsewhere with growing ability. The effect has been interesting. My opponents in the studio and those allowed to call in from outside hear and understand the words that I utter. They do not appear to understand the meaning of my words. Their response varies between the incredulous and the hostile. They politely suggest I am stupid or evil, and then go back to their fantasies of what "we" should be doing for "our" children, and how nice it would be to load teachers unable to do what they are already employed to do with duties they are not qualified to discharge.

It might be, of course, that I am useless in debate. I am not - but, while I have my moments, I also have my anti-moments; and I know how it is to leave a studio with no valid points made. Even so, I have not been that bad this week. If I cannot gain a proper hearing, it is less because I have nothing to say, or cannot say it, than because I am addressing myself to audiences unprepared to listen to what I have to say.

Where the protection of children is concerned, we have what the lefty sociologists call a discourse. This is a set of false assumptions about the world so pervasive and so connected to each other, that those under its influence are unable to conceive the validity of any alternative to it. The idea that the raising of children is a matter wholly for parents—and that interference is only justified to stop or punish violence or gross deception—is not so much rejected by most people in this country as never considered. It is taken as common sense that the government is really responsible for the raising of children, and that parents are only allowed a shadow of their former authority in those matters where immediate and local decisions need to be made. Any argument here is over the precise extent of the principle, but not over the principle itself.

It used to be like this with sex. I can remember the weakened but still effective hold on the public mind of the idea that homosexuality was self-evidently disgusting, and that anyone who believed in lightening the punishments for its practising was by definition himself suspect. It was probably like this with heretics and alleged witches before the great Enlightenment took hold. In one respect or another, it has probably always been like this. Time and place may alter their exact numbers and ability to dominate, but every generation has its excitable fanatics, disposed to persecution, and its ambitious cynics, willing to use the fanatics to get themselves wealth and status at our expense—and its majority of obedient sheep, eager to believe and do as told. The nature of the excuse is never the same in any two generations, but the fact of some excuse never changes.

What makes the protection of children so much more threatening as an excuse than the policing of sexual morality or religious belief is that it justifies so much more interference. There is no adult activity that does not somehow affect children; and so there is no theoretical limit to the control that can be imposed over adults in the name of child protection. The proposals now being made do not themselves involve the coercion of adults—beyond, that is, making us pay for children to be nagged into behaving like an Islington housewife. But behind these proposals stand the further demands for controls on advertising, for compulsory warnings on food labels, for taxes on disapproved foods, and perhaps unscheduled inspections of food cupboards and cooking habits in the homes of families with children. This last, I am sure, goes beyond what is now acceptable, and so has not been proposed by anyone in authority—or perhaps not clearly proposed. But the first three would only a decade ago have been dismissed as "political correctness gone mad". The principle has been accepted: all else is just a matter of time and opportunity.

This is not to say we should despair. I am writing this article on my way to a television studio to repeat my arguments, and am wearing a suit in the expectation of a call to a television studio. A discourse so well established as this cannot be overturned by one or two sessions in a radio studio; but it can be sapped by repeated challenges. Such was the case with sexuality during the thirty years or so after 1955. Such as been the case with drug policy since the 1980s. It is significant that media people are desperate to find someone—no matter how inefficient he may be—to challenge the discourse. I am at the moment the best they can find because I am all they can find. But there will be others.

We should, I firmly believe, despair that our head of government is a filthy, bloodstained beast, and that he will never be brought to trial for his crimes. But other matters may not be so bad as they appear.