Social engineering

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If you've read this blog even once before, you likely know I used to lean to the left, but now am permanentaly bent that way. I favor actions like sugared soda taxes as a way to encourage people not to drink them — I think of them as a market solution to a community problem. I don't purposely single out sugared sodas, but consider them an excellent beachhead because they add empty calories without delivering any nutritional benefit.

Conservatives rail against such taxes, or any food-related government measure that would seekto alter behavior, because food is a personal choice, and people should be allowed to make their own choices, period.

I allow the possibility that their side could probably be better, more subtly presented, but the spur for this post came from an assertion made to the Obesity Society last fall by the Center for Consumer Freedom:

   “The public health community seems dead-set on ever more regulation of our lives. The push for taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages is just the latest example of the disdainful belief that when it comes to matters of personal choices, the regulators know best.
   Government taxation should not be a tool for social engineering. Nor should it be used to penalize individuals for their personal food choices.”

'Course, the speaker, J. Justin Wilson, doesn't speak for all conservatives; he speaks for the food and beverage manufacturers who fund the misnomered CCF. (Shouldn't it be the Center for Corporate Freedom? They wouldn't even have to redo the monogrammed towels. But I snidely digress.)

My position is, we've been trying personal-responsibility-only for ... ever, and what we have is a pretty fat nation, leading an ever-fattening world. My question to conservatives is, will the imperatives of personal choice ever be co-opted by a societal imperative?

About $140 billion is spent annually in America on diseases to which obesity contributes. Retired military leaders say that physical unfitness is a primary impediment to recruiting. If we, as a group, don't act to counter these trends, what will stop them?

Meanwhile, who are they kidding when they talk about unfettered personal choice? Commerce routinely seeks to manipulate consumers to influence their (our!) choices, overtly through advertising and covertly by engineering food-like products with dyes, flavorings, and techniques that will boost sales at the cheapest possible cost. These tactics are not only considered acceptable by marketeers, they are applauded and emulated.

In this case, a tax is merely a community decision to influence choice, based solely on public good. Why is that so horrifc, when corporate decisions to influence choice, based solely on profit motive, are venerated?

The question of whether societal benefit should every outweigh personal choice has already been settled; consider speed limits and other traffic laws, building codes, water-pollution measures. So we're left only with deciding when to act, and to what extent.

It's facile to sneer about the "disdainful belief that when it comes to matters of personal choices, the regulators know best." But the issues are more sophisticated than that. Those regulators work for us, and if they act in a manner we don't like, we can tell them to change it.

I really would like to hear from Mr. Wilson, or even better, a conservative whose principles aren't potentially tainted by profit: Is there a problem of obesity in our country? In addition to the ills it brings to individuals, for which they are individually responsible, has a collective concern arisen? Will one ever arise? And if so, should we do anything about it?

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
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