In Defence of the Right to Encourage Gross Fatness, Sean Gabb, 28th November 2003

Free Life Commentary,
Issue Number 116
28th November 2003

In Defence of the Right to
Encourage Gross Fatness
by Sean Gabb

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At present, the Health Select Committee in the House of Commons is taking evidence on how fat the English are becoming, and to what extent this is encouraged by the fast food companies. The Committee has so far taken evidence from senior executives in McDonald’s, Cadbury-Schweppes and Kellog’s. These were questioned about the calorific and general nutritional value of their products. The purpose of these hearings is to consider whether a law should be made to regulate the advertising and sale of certain foods on the grounds that those who enjoy eating them have a greater tendency than otherwise to become fat.

As I am something of an expert on nutrition, let me begin by considering the nature of the claims made against the fast food companies. An average grown man in England of sedentary habits needs about 2,500 calories a day to maintain a stable weight. Experience tells me that I need about a thousand fewer: some people I know need many more—but we are talking here about averages. A McDonald’s meal of cheeseburger, chips and milkshake contains just over a thousand calories. Therefore, an average man who eats three meals a day of this kind will be consuming about 500 calories more than he needs. Many of these extra calories will be excreted. Some, however – and the number varies—will be digested and stored as body fat. For most people, this will mean a gradual increase in weight that may become annoying or embarrassing in early middle age. For a small number, it can lead to an alarming increase in weight all the way to what the doctors call “morbid obesity”—this being the point where the weight and positioning of fat causes irreversible harm to organs and an early death.

Undoubtedly, the food companies—and not just those selling fast food—compete to make their products as appetising as they can, and spend large amounts of money on encouraging us to buy these products. Just as surely, the immense prosperity to which our reasonably liberal civilisation has brought us allows nearly all of us to buy as much food as we could ever want. In my own case, it takes about an hour of my labour to earn enough to feed me for a week. Give or take a few minutes, the same is true for people of my condition throughout the civilised world. Never before in history has this been so for quite ordinary people. I sometimes think how nice it might have been to be born in Classical Athens or in England around 1770. But my sober judgement is to bless the fact that I was born where I was and when. The ability to eat my fill by scarcely lifting a finger is a wonderful thing. The only problem is that I can almost as easily eat much more than my fill.

This brings me back to the food companies. Should they be blamed if their customers grow fat? Should their advertising be regulated? Should they be compelled to provide nutritional information on their labels or at the point of sale? Should people have any cause of action against them for allowing or encouraging fatness? My answer to all these questions is no.

As a libertarian, I believe that people should be free to do as they please. The only limitations on this freedom should be to punish and deter fraud and coercion against others, and to ensure the continued existence of the community as a whole—this last to be interpreted very narrowly. Within these limitations, people should be free to read and think and say what they please, and to do what they please. Why I believe this is irrelevant. I may believe that everyone has certain natural rights, and that among these are the right to life, liberty and property. Or I may believe the acceptance of these right to be conducive to the general good. Whatever the case, I deny the legitimacy of any restraint on freedom that cannot be plainly justified on the grounds just given.

You are welcome to reject my belief. If you do, I am not sure if I can persuade you into it. But it has long been the acknowledged principle of government in the English speaking world, and it is accepted in the constitutional documents of every civilised nation. For good or ill, it is demonstrably the principle that makes our own modern civilisation richer and more powerful than any other that has ever existed.

Now, the principle being granted, the protection of people from their own weakness or folly is not a legitimate function of government. If people are to be free to do as they please, it follows that they must be free to make serious or even fatal mistakes. People should be free to drink and smoke and take other recreational drugs, and to take part in dangerous sports, and to join religious movements that require any extremes of self harm. And they should be free to eat as they please, no matter how unhealthy their food or quantity of food eaten may be supposed to be.

Because the principle if individual freedom is so generally accepted in the abstract, few will argue against it directly. Arguments in favour of control are usually made on three grounds. First, it is argued that people have as great a right to be liberated from their own destructive urges as to be protected from the destructive urges of others. Second, it is argued that people in many cases choose dangerous actions without full knowledge of the consequences—and even that they have in many cases been deceived as to these consequences. Third, it is argued that the duty to protect children is sufficient to justify an incidental compulsion of adults. Let us consider these arguments in turn.

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First, it is true that people often find themselves under some inner direction to do what they know to be bad for them. Thus, a man may strongly believe that drinking too much or smoking or whatever will shorten his life, but feel unable to resist the impulse to continue. Perhaps in this case, he may rightly be called a slave to his own lower urges—that these are frustrating his ability to do what he believes to be in his better interest. But this does not justify any attempt by others to liberate him by force from these urges. In the first place, it is a matter of proven fact that any government that has tried to force people to be free has made them into slaves. In the second place, any such attempt flatly contradicts the principles of liberal democracy. If people cannot be presumed able to choose responsibly for themselves, why should the be allowed to vote in matters that affect others? One might as well give dogs and cats the vote as such people.

Second, I do not deny that advertising can be seductive. But unless positively false claims are made where no reasonable man can be presumed to know the truth, this is no justification for control. If a company were to insist, for example, that eating an ounce of ginseng a day could infallibly cure stomach cancer, anyone who unsuccessfully relied on this claim would have an obvious cause of action. But it is common belief that eating lots of fatty hamburger meat can make one fat—just as it has long been suspected that tobacco is not always good for the health. If a supplier of such products claims otherwise, and is believed, that is the hard luck of those who believe and suffer. It is one thing for the law to put down fraudulent misrepresentation. It is another entirely to make a tort or a crime of uttering probable lies—let alone of invitations to set aside common sense.

And even if there are to be laws in this matter, they should be so framed that they must be invoked only by the injured parties, not enforced by bureaucracies with an interest in multiplying regulations and extending them by degree into other areas. Nor should any laws involve the prior restraint of advertisers. Advertising is speech. Except the first may be true and the second cannot be, there is no logical difference between the statements “My vitamin C injections will make you better in bed” and “Vote Labour for better public services”. That the first involves a pecuniary motive is a very small incidental point. This being so, any control of advertising by prior restraint is censorship. It should be no surprise that, having regulated advertising for over a generation, the authorities in this country are now considering similar controls on political speech.

As for labelling rules, it might be convenient to be reminded at every point of sale—or to be informed—about the precise nutritional value of every food or the probable harm of consuming it. But just because something may be convenient does not make its compulsion right. Food companies should no more be required by law to make statements about their products than they should be to refrain from making statements. In any event, it was possible, long before compulsion was introduced, to buy guides stating the calorific and other values of common foods and branded products. Many companies had also responded to the wishes of their customers by giving such information on the labels of their products. If customers are not willing to demand this information by voting through their pockets, they have no right to have the authorities demand it for them under threat of punishment.

Third, the present argument over nutrition is largely advanced under cover of protecting children. Certainly, children should not be presumed to have the same capacity for choice as adults, and they should be protected from making choices that are generally thought unwise. This may extend to making it illegal to direct certain forms of advertising at them. But the protection of children should not be made the excuse for enslaving adults. Children have at best a claim to reasonable protection. This is far less than the maximal levels now being urged in almost every area.

Two further arguments may be suggested against any regulation of advertising or sale of food products. The first is that nutrition is not an exact science. I took it for granted above that eating large amount of fatty meat can make one fat. This is a very recent belief. When I was a child, the general belief was that protein and fat were good for the health, and that carbohydrates were bad. It is only since the 1970s—and on the basis of some dubious statistical claims—that we now believe the opposite. It is also a belief hotly contested by followers of the late Dr Atkins. I know two people very well—David Carr and Robert Henderson—who swear that the Atkins Diet has allowed them to shed not only pounds but stones as well. I am not sure it is a diet that would suit me. But I do not for a moment doubt what these men tell me for themselves. It may be that the present conventional wisdom will be again turned on its head. This being so, any attempt to change eating habits that went beyond voluntary persuasion would be shown up as wicked deception—far more wicked than the most seductive, but voluntary, persuasion of advertising.

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The second argument is that this is a politically correct witch hunt. Why are not the owners of every curry house in England also being questioned by that Select Committee? The only Indians I know who are not fat or otherwise unhealthy are those who eat a European diet. Their own diet contains large amounts of saturated fat in foods with all the vitamins cooked out of them and flavoured with probably noxious amounts of spice. A relative of mine is a medical receptionist in a large Inner London practice. She assures me that elderly Indians suffer disproportionately from haemorrhoids and often serious stomach disorders. If Big Macs are to be discouraged by law, why not lime pickle? The answer is too obvious to need spelling out.

According to the newspaper reports, the senior executives of the food companies targetted have so far put up a robust defence of their right to market their products. But I am not sure how much longer they will hold out. I have no doubt they will eventually agree to some “voluntary” code of regulation that they think will allow them to continue their activities while shielding them from outside competition. The tobacco companies long ago made that deal; and, in spite of all the legal and fiscal attacks on them, they continue to profit from it. Such, I suppose, is the corporate capitalism that we now have in place of the real thing.

As for those politicians, they might consider their salaries better earned by leaving alone the matter of what or how much we eat, and instead asking Mr Blair about those weapons of mass destruction he told us about in Iraq, and about how many Iraqi civilians he is responsible for killing, and about his degree of responsibility for those British and Turkish deaths in Constantinople last week—deaths in a “war against terrorism” in which it was none of our business to join. But such again, I suppose, is the political debate we now have in this country in place of the real thing.

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